When it Comes

The repeating sameness of the midwinter days gives the impression that nothing’s really happening, that time has suspended itself, that nothing changes except for maybe the monochromatic greyness of the sky, one day a bit lighter, the next a bit darker, the next sprinkling snow as if from a shaker. I wake, build a fire, make coffee, feed the cows, feed the fire, ski, work, more coffee, more chores, more fire, read, sleep, and wake to do it all over again.

But throughout it all everything is changing: Our elder son is hired to lead river expeditions from a base on northern California, and prepares to leave. Our younger son is hired to help build a sugarhouse and install 35,000 taps in time for the first sap run, and is out the door every morning long before light. Our old washing machine dies a clunking death. A neighbor’s house burns to the ground.

I try to place my attention where my attention is worthy of being placed, while simultaneously trying to remember that I get to decide what is worthy and what is not. I try to decide wisely. It’s a lot of trying. And still, every day: Build fire, make coffee, do chores, go to woods. Visit with my sons in the moments they’re home and in the mood for visiting, a confluence of circumstances that seems to arise with decreasing frequency, like a clock winding down.

The hard part of winter is over. Or it is for me, anyway. The days are getting longer, and despite that unrelenting monochromatic sky, the sun soon to return (I even saw it once last week!). It’s all downhill from here, a soft glide into the early days of spring, the first bare patches of ground on the south-facing slopes, the muddy, tire-sucking backroads, the rutted driveway, the sap running hard, tufts of shed cow hair stuck to my jacket, the near-empty woodshed, the skis propped optimistically by the front door for another outing or two if the conditions are right. The house often empty, or nearly so. The wet, fecund smell of the thaw. I remember that smell. I like that smell. I’ll try to give it my full attention when it comes.


Crashing Down

It snows all weekend, a warm snow that accumulates slowly but eventually piles to eight inches or more. For only the second time this winter, I plow the driveway, the wet snow rolling into huge balls as I push it with the tractor. I like plowing snow, though I liked it more when we had a plow truck and I could drink coffee and listen to music as I plowed, continually rubbing away the condensation that formed on the inside of the windshield no matter how high I ran the defroster. And I liked it even better back when the boys were small and would ride along, laughing at the sudden stops and starts, already attuned to the thrill of wielding powerful machinery. Plowing with the tractor is slower, less comfortable, and lonelier – no coffee, no music, no heat, no windshield, no sons – but it beats a shovel by a country mile.

By Monday morning, the temperature has dropped. The cold, aided by a steady breeze, has dried out the snow. It always amazes me how that happens. Again I ski along the mountain ridge, but this time I go further, time and again passing the point I’ve identified as my turn around. The snow is so good. It whispers under my skis. The trees emit cracks and pops in the cold. It’s almost a conversation.

I pass a large paper birch, half-chewed through by beaver and still standing, but otherwise see no signs of wildlife, hear no birdsong. Everyone hunkered down, I guess. Funny to think of them in their snowbound worlds, uninterrupted by the virus, unconcerned with events that I can’t seem stop reading about, even when I know what good it does me. Which is not too bloody much. Again and again I pledge to not look at the news upon waking; again and again I look at the news upon waking. Coffee on the woodstove, the splintering world caught in the computer on my lap. If only it would stay there, though sometimes it seems that if I simply refused to lend it my attention, it would. I know it’s wishful thinking.

Finally I turn back. The snow still whispering. The trees still cracking and popping. The half-chewed birch still standing, though the closer I look, the more tenuous it seems. So I hurry on, not at all wanting to be crushed when it comes crashing down.


Begun in Earnest

Early on the morning after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, I ski into the forest along the spine of small mountains that form the ridge just uphill of our home. I ski to a pond, which is little known and lesser visited, and where I’ve decided the ice is thick enough to bear my weight, though I’ll have no proof of this until after I haven’t fallen through. In the photo above, you can see my view from the edge of the pond. That’s looking due east, or maybe just a bit south of that.

It would perhaps better serve my narrative to suggest that I skied into the woods seeking solace from the chaos of the preceding day, but the truth is, I’d done the same two days before, and the day before that, and even the day before that. And so on. I grew up skiing in the woods behind my childhood home, and now I ski in the woods behind my adult home, and it’s no more a means of coping with our nation’s woes than it is the simple force of habit cultivated over more mornings than I can count. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. Often it’s not. Mostly I don’t think about it; I just go.

There are no other tracks in the snow atop the ice. I ski a long loop around the pond’s perimeter and then head deeper into the woods, climbing a steep hill I’ve climbed often enough. I like the trees up here, especially the big yellow birch and old sugar maples, which have rough trunks and crooked limbs that look like arthritic fingers stretching for something just out of reach. At the crest of the hill I stop to consider my options; it’s so quiet that I can hear my own heart, not only in my ears, as usual, but actually through the wall of my chest. That’s what it seems like, anyway.

I miss faces, hugs, handshakes. Loud, live music. Anyplace crowded. I finally got myself a real mask, with ear loops and everything, and I’m almost accustomed to it, I almost don’t think about putting it on when I go into Willey’s for a two-inch schedule 40 elbow, wire nuts, and, even though it’s winter, one of those 50-cent creamsicle pops I’ve developed a weakness for. I eat it in the truck on the way home, listening to the radio. Sedition. Coup. Incursion. Inciting. A whole new vocabulary for a whole new way of life.

Back down the hill I fly, past the big trees and their outstretched fingers, then past the pond with the ice I can now prove is thick enough to bear my weight, the wind and the noise of my skis against the snow loud in my ears. The heart sound covered up. The sky still grey but full of light. The day begun in earnest.


For All I Know

At first light I return to the same spot in the woods I’d left at last light the day before, where I’d been cutting firewood for the past few days and where the ground is covered by a carpet of sawdust. In the low morning light I can see the new tracks of a small deer who’d come during the night, perhaps drawn to the scent of newly cut wood, or having wandered here by happenstance.

It’s good firewood: Ash, beech, sugar maple. The big trees come crashing down with the whump of heavy wood against snow-covered soil. Then that certain, fleeting stillness, the forest pausing to note the passing of one of its own.

I cut and haul and split for four days straight, not particularly long days, but long enough to earn my suppers, and almost long enough to convince myself that I’ve given in relatively equal measure to what I’ve gained, though it’s probably true that I’ve become so accustomed to giving so little that my sense of what’s equal is all out-of-whack. Nonetheless, it feels good.

The calendar ticks over into the New Year. A storm comes and there is snow. I’m done cutting wood for a while. I hang my chaps back in the barn, instead of by the wood stove to dry for the next day, and I miss the wood-and-oil smell of them. I plow the driveway, and when I’m finished plowing, I ski past the spot I’d been cutting wood. The sawdust is covered, but the deer has been back. I can see where it scuffed in the snow, and where it’s tracks disappear over the top of a treed knoll, and for a moment I allow myself the possibility that it’s right there, just on the other side of that small rise, smelling and listening and judging the danger. And for all I know, it is.

For your listening pleasure (and not entirely unrelated to the above), Franklin Burroughs reading his essay Compression Wood.


Always Gambling

A surprise squall in the aftermath of the great Christmas thaw of 2020, and again the ground is covered. Four, maybe even five-inches, that magical cold snow, what I call snow globe snow because it looks exactly like what you’d image snow would look like if you’d only ever seen it in picture books. Fluffy. Big flakes. In the aftermath of the squall, I walk in the woods, scouting firewood. It’s almost impossibly pretty.

I dream I’m on an airplane that’s about to take off, and I realize suddenly that I’m the only person not wearing a mask. I don’t have one with me, and it’s too late to find one; the seat belt sign has been illuminated for my safety, the flight attendants have completed their final cabin check, and are settling into their seats. I start to panic, and then something shifts, and I’m able to relax and actually begin looking forward to that moment when the plane begins to accelerate for take off. I remember loving that moment as a child whenever we’d fly to visit my grandparents. Truth be told, it still gives me a little thrill.

When I drive, I look at people’s faces. This is what I miss most, just seeing people’s faces. The creases in their cheeks, the smile lines, the crooked teeth. I haven’t seen a good mustache in months. We’re fortunate, I know, for where we live, how we live. I don’t have to wear a mask but a handful of times each week, and even then, only for as long as necessary to do my business. It wasn’t until about two weeks ago that I finally worked through my stash of old construction masks, the ones I’ve had since back when you wore a mask for reasons other than the virus.

People say our lives will never be the same, but I’m not convinced. I imagine the virus will eventually pass, or we’ll learn to live with it, add it to the list of necessary risks we’ve learned to accept or simply ignore. We’re always gambling. We just don’t always realize it.

For those of you who keep coming back to this space – many of you for many years now – thank you. I often think I’m going to get back to posting more often, but that doesn’t seem to happen. Maybe this year it will, maybe not. Either way, thank you all for reading and Happy New Year.


Storing Sunlight in my Bones

Cold drops like a hammer, and with it snow, not much but enough, and in the early hour I drive to the crest of the mountain, where an old logging road provides ingress to a vast swath of public forest. It’s eight below zero, the sun just clawing its way above the horizon; the hillsides ahead of me shimmer in light, though I remain in the shadows until I break out of the woods onto a shallow body of water known to the locals as Dead Moose Pond because they once found a decaying moose in its waters. The ice is thin, but my long skis distribute my weight, and I circle the edge of the pond twice, sun on my face, lungs full and satisfied, the snow of that magical consistency that allows me to imagine I might never tire, that I could circle this pond for hours and hours. I’m storing sunlight in my bones, I think, because that’s what it feels like, though I have no idea if such a thing is possible or even makes sense.

Despite the magical snow, I ski for only a scant hour, then return to the car, the old logging road still caught in morning shadow. My fingers and toes ache with cold, and I run the heat high as I descend the mountain, driving fast until I catch a flatbed truck carrying big bales of hay stacked high, flecks of dried grasses dancing in its wake.


Slowly Looking Up

We lurch in and out of winter. There is cold and snow, then rain and warm, then more cold but no snow, all the while the days slowly diminishing around their edges, and I play the game I always play around this time of year, which is to count back from December 21, and then add that number plus one to the other side of the solstice to determine when we’ll have more daylight than we do now. And yet, strangely, it feels as if the days and weeks and even months are galloping past, even in the dark. Maybe especially in the dark.

For five straight days we had skiable snow, and so I skied, each morning the same loop, the only one that’s really possible with such scant cover. Down the driveway, along the road, over the bridge, past the church, around the field. Then again around the field. Then if I have time maybe even again. Then around the church on my way home because I have this idea that skiing around the church might in some way compensate for the praying I don’t do.

December 28. That’s when we’ll again have as much daylight as we do today. And the day after that, just a little more. And it feels to me like things are slowly looking up.


The Way They Always Do

In the evenings, after chores and dinner, I walk the gravel roads. I like to walk without a headlamp, right down the center, let my eyes adjust and my feet find the way. There’s little traffic to worry about; two nights ago, I walked for over an hour, and did not see a single car. My usual route takes me to the very end of a dead end road, high on the hill above our land, where if it were daylight I could see across a shallow valley over to the town of Greensboro and the steely blue of Caspian Lake. Greensboro’s a nice town. It’s wealthier than this one, but not too wealthy. You could be poor there and not feel unwelcome.

There’s been little snow, and what there has been has come in fits and spurts. I’d prefer more, despite the extra work it brings. But there’s not much to be done about the weather except to lament and carry on, so like everyone else that’s what I do, and my old skis, the ones I use when the cover is thin and rocks lurk, still lean against the shed wall where I left them after my election day outing one whole month ago. Though despite the grey weather, despite the dim days and election angst and virus fatigue, it feels more recent than that. I remember when I was younger how time seemed to speed up and slow down; always fast when I most wanted it to be slow, and always slow when I most wanted it to be fast. It’s not like that anymore.

This morning I woke to moonlight shining through the window above our bed. It’s got cold again, and last night’s fit of snow has stuck. There’s maybe an inch on the ground. Looking through the kitchen window, up onto the knoll with the light coming on, I can just see the cows standing next to one another the way they always do. I know what they want. They’re wanting their hay. I’ll take it to them shortly.


Long Way From Here

Opening day of rifle season. At 3:30, I hear our younger son rise and start a fire in the cookstove. I drift off, but 20 minutes later am roused again by the sound of something frying, spatula scraping pan. At 5:15, I rise, too. Lay a couple sticks of wood on the coals the boy left behind, make coffee. Sit a while. Do chores. The kid’s long gone, leaning against a tree somewhere. Or maybe still hiking to the tree he has in mind. He’s got his driver’s license, got his truck, got just enough work to keep the tank half full most of the time. Well. That happened fast.

I clean up fencing and store it for winter. Split some firewood. Drink a second cup of coffee, then a third. The other boy is off paddling some river in Maine. The wife is off scouting trees for basket material. The cats watch me split, one perched on the hood of the car, the other on a rock. I imagine they’re imaging the fires to come, how they’ll splay themselves across the floor in front of the stove in the most inconvenient spot possible, the one I never quite have the heart to chase them from.

Later, I ride my bike. It’s snowing a bit, but just a bit, and the cold air feels good, drills right into my face like a low voltage electric current. Up Flagg Pond Road, past a bony German Shepherd who tries to run alongside me, but his hind legs aren’t working right, and he stumbles. Then onto Gonyaw Road, where I spy a woman sitting on the ground near the roadside, and I think maybe I should ask if she needs help or something, but she smiles and waves. She’s just sitting, just watching the world go by, or whatever portion of the world goes by on Gonyaw Road, which can’t be too awful much. But enough, I guess.

The houses all have smoke coming out their chimneys. The sky is low, clouds layered one atop the other. Pressing down. Winter feels close now. I think of that old dog. I wonder if he’ll make it to spring, which suddenly seems like a very long way from here.


Won’t Mind At All

The snow goes as quickly as it came, melting fast under an atypical warm spell, mid-60’s and sunny five days running. In the dark one balmy, star-studded evening I hike with my friend Tim up the rooted, rocky trail that scales Mount Hunger, to a sub-peak known as White Rock, where we stand and watch the sky and the twinkling lights of the villages below.

I try my best not to be transfixed by the unfolding chaos – the rampaging virus, the chaotic election – but wow. It is truly something to behold, and even in the swirling midst of it I have the sense of living through an era that will define eras to come. Though I guess that’s always true. I guess it’s just more obvious now.

On the radio I hear an interview with an author who wrote a book about living with an implantable cardiac defibrillator, and she reads a passage from when the defibrillator malfunctions, shocking her to the ground and she can smell burning and she realizes the burning smell is her. The insides of her. And she lives (I mean, obviously, here she is, talking about the book she wrote), and I think it’s remarkable what we can endure. 2000 volts gone haywire in our chest. The smell of our own burning innards. What a thing.

This morning the clouds moved it. Still warm, but you can feel the change that’s coming. There’s snow in the forecast, as there should be. I won’t mind when it arrives. I won’t mind at all.