A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The first snow of winter here in central Vermont has now fallen. It came late this year, late by several months, according to the TV weather watchers. I’m glad it took so long; it gave us a few more weeks to work in the yard, to putter in the garage, aimlessly shifting the junk to different corners, trying to be serious and practical while the trees shed their leaves and the chipmunks and squirrels slowly ease out of sight. Now it’s here, a ruffled cotton quilt of snow that makes a fragile cover, a puffy one, curled up over the ruts and ditches, and parting its satiny texture to make way for a still-running creek.
We’re used to the dark emerald world of pasture grass and the heavy branches of the maples and oaks hanging over a fast-running stream. Almost any road in this part of the state runs along a river, since all the settling that took place two centuries before occurred when someone built a mill and supplied cheap energy for cutting wood, pounding grain, running saws and forge hammers before the age of steam. Towns grew up soon after, and the lumbermen came in from other states to work the thick, untouched hardwood forests that abounded back then. Cutting them down, or clearing them, made way for pastureland and the dairy industry, still a mainstay of the state’s stagnant economy. So the roads gave the interior little fissures in the deep forest shade through which to travel, trade, or simply wander. They curl and sidle up hillsides following the whims of the black water tumbling over the rocks. There is a kind of dance between these blue roads and the foaming, reckless water that surges down the slopes.
The trees frame us in a complicated black and white world. The branches enmesh the gray sky, and fan out like spider webs, or like the bars of a prison. The prison image is the more likely, since we are now house-bound, driven indoors for the months ahead by the stark, frigid air, the stillness that suddenly hardens like glass around one’s house. Beneath us, great slabs of granite spread out and merge into equally thick masses of marble. They hold up the world, these stone floors. The loamy earth, so soft and crumbly in the warm months, is now frosted over with a grainy sand-like ice, as remote from summer as childhood is to the elderly. Here and there, a fallen acorn has missed the eye of a squirrel; empty seed husks lie around like the debris of an old battle field. The great season of plenty has wasted its power and squandered all the fertility that was released out of the forces of spring. You gaze upon the ruins of wild grass and tall, broken-necked weeds and wonder what all the urgency was about a few months before.
Lamps are turned on by mid-day; fires are lit in the grate, to help along a furnace in the cellar, which tends sometimes to find pushing heat up into the upper floors a hard task. The smell of wood smoke in the yard, while you get more wood into the wheelbarrow, is like some old forgotten uncle’s tobacco smoke, a pleasant smell full of yearning for other days. Love is like some unopened letter sent years before, misplaced on a shelf. To open it now would fill you with the same emptiness that you see in the hazy hilltops to the east of us. Something has left the world and its absence is crucial, a pain that has no particular name or verb to define it. “A certain slant of winter light,” as Emily Dickinson described it, “heavenly hurt,” a sign of mortality suddenly visible, even palpable in the world as you pull your sweater tight and sit down heavily in a chair, your back to the glare of winter, to read a book you’ve been promising yourself to open for years and years.
The only relief one can find after the snow has fallen and the roads are scraped clear by the snowplows, is to go into town to shop. Suddenly the bright produce in the bins is a source of vague joy; so are the cans of beans and bottles of hot sauce. The cooler is piled high with range-free hens’ eggs. There’s bacon, if you want it; and pancake mix, cream cheese, and jugs of maple syrup. Eating is more than a luxury, it’s a way of celebrating that you are alive, and that your kitchen is warm and misty with the bubbling of an omelet, the aroma of coffee rising out of the drip machine. Toast pops up and shows its golden, almost saffron-yellow sides, as if some message suddenly appeared in your inbox full of warmth and joy from an Indian friend sitting by his open window in Calcutta. You eat with others, if they’re around, and push back an empty plate to look again, to let the eyes walk out into the pearl-colored afternoon, up the icy hills and into the foggy distance, only to retract your stare and realize you are cocooned, your feet snug in fleece-lined slippers, your arms comforted by a wool cardigan.
This is the weather that induces a kind of Norwegian state of reverie, the moody, somber thoughts of an Ibsen, or an Edward Munch, or the dark, ponderous music of Edvard Grieg. A black and white world shades off into an infinite gradation of grays and ambiguities. The eye is lost among the myriad shades of meaning winter introduces after the flowers are gone. What it all means baffles the best minds; nothing is clear about winter but that it has halted nature’s cycles; here the earth is frozen, rock-hard, a brittle, silent, landscape of blackened monuments in a park more like a cemetery than a hinterland, a rural landscape. And what one thinks about is eternity, the unknown, the triviality of most events, the fragility of life. I think about my childhood, but in doing so, I am like a man standing on a cliff looking out at the sea, where a small boat drifts to the horizon with my boyhood self waving back at me with a forgiving smile.
Copyright 2016 Paul Christensen
Traditional 19th c. painting by unknown artist, courtesy of Kedron Valley Inn, est. 1828 in South Woodstock, VT