The girls and I wander out onto the marsh to go for a ski while the moon is still full. The clouds are gone and the night is cold. Due to some random sequence of the frost-thaw cycle—warm snow followed by repeated nights of intense cold and, who knows, perhaps even influenced by the solstice, the eclipse, and other rare phenomena—the snow out on the marsh has rearranged itself into a flat skiff of broad plates, each snowflake now recrystallized into a perfectly planar structure. The entire snowscape before us appears to have been converted into a land of fish scales, three feet deep, each one silver-blue in the light of the moon.
The re-formed flakes are arrayed in all directions, brittle in the cold, leached of all moisture, dry as fossil fish scales. And though most of them are one micron thick, and lying parallel to the ground and the pull of gravity, enough of them tilt upward, as if in strange geological yearning, so that they sparkle and glint like huge sequins in the blue light. The entire world ablaze with shimmering coronas and prisms cast by the fish-scale flakes.
Through snow as loose as sand, the blades of our skis cut across these fish scales, making music as if we’re crossing sheets of glass wind chimes.
We ski through the blue light. I hold my breath, hoping the girls will remember the sight—though better still, they might take it for granted, assuming such wonder to be a daily occurrence. And that would be all right, more than all right. Nonchalance and awestruck wonder right next to each other.
On the way home we stop to pick up handfuls of the flaked snow, tossing it to the moon. We watch as the snow comes sifting back to us in silvery, shining columns, beams of blue electricity set loose by our hands, our hearts.
New Year’s Eve, the Millennium
Around ten o’clock, the lights go out. There’s no punch line, no alarm or surprise for even the briefest and most delicious of moments. The darkness is sudden and absolute. Laughing, we light candles and pass out flashlights, which are staples in the homes up here. The main propane generator is down, as often happens in deep winter, and so we’ve been using the back-up gasoline generator. It’s run out of gas, is all.
I slip outside into the silence of hard-falling snow. Away from the party and from my friends, the thought of my mother arises. Gone nine years, and it still doesn’t seem right.
When I was little, maybe seven or eight, I asked her about the year 2000. Would I live to see it, and how old would I be if I did? I asked her if she would still be alive then, and she told me yes.
It seems like something from a fairy tale—such a soft, heavy, calming snow. What if the world doesn’t end in fire or chaos, but in snow? All the despair through the years not merely hidden but transformed, covered with beauty, converted to beauty. As if all failure or disappointment or hunger or absence has somehow been redeemed.
The snow comes down. Not as some meteorological phenomenon, but as if some dense and infinite reservoir has opened up. Snow falling like feathers, falling hard and steady, stacking up. I stand outside a long time: Snow is more mesmerizing than fire. Each snowflake falling as it does, so simply.
There’s an inch or more of snow on my shoulders when I step inside. Browsing on the bounty of food and drink, we joke and visit. All our discussions are of the future: our hopes, our wish for joy. We play board games, games of skill and chance all night long. The children wander into the forest with sparklers in the last hour before light.
It’s still snowing hard. We set off a single firework, a large one, and it goes hissing and sputtering and smoking upward into the illuminated sky of falling snow; the sparks and traces of light unfold as incandescent blossoms. Soon after, once the mounds of snow are cleared off from their trucks, our friends embrace us and drive off. We feel their presence lingering as we wander up the steps in the morning light.
The century has ended, another century has begun.
I love driving Mary Katherine and Lowry to school each morning; I love traveling the same route through the snowy woods, the days growing incrementally longer as the month goes on.
Anything is possible. We’ve seen mountain lions bound across the road in front of us, and elk and coyotes, and once, a weasel. Always, deer.
Always, looking upriver as we cross the bridge in town, the mass of Mt. Henry, with the line of its 1994 burn zigzagging halfway up it, neat as the faint scar from long-ago surgery on one’s abdomen.
The river is almost always frozen by January. Lunar patterns in the whorls of ice: stress fractures and rifts that have sealed back over themselves. The script that is ice, after each night’s flexion, traceable in the long, sweeping arcs and the perfectly straight lines that cross the span of the river. Perfectly carved, as if transcribed by some giant compass—an odd assemblage of straight lines, like those in a game of tic-tac-toe—or as if a pile of spindles has been spilled onto the ice in a game of pick-up-sticks.
The impression you may get is that each riverine marking in the ice, remnant and residue of the previous day’s and night’s thermal variation, is not random, but exists in this world under the auspices of some mathematical formula. Some reason-for-being as yet unknown to us. One may imagine that these elegant, unknown equations are pursued by women and men like hounds. Gazing at the ice, it’s easy to believe that knowledge of the formula will evade them.
Punctuating the river’s crust are the stippled tracks of deer, their hoofprints sometimes as small as coins. It’s easier to interpret this snow-made language: Here is where they crossed over to browse the hawthorn bush. Here is where they came down off Hensley Mountain in search of morning sunlight. Here is where a doe with two yearlings wandered along shore’s edge, nibbling at the dried stubble of last autumn’s wild roses.
Sometimes there are dark ovals, shadowy lozenge shapes in the river’s snow about the size of a deer’s body, where the stippled tracks vanish. Though deer are for the most part equipped with a reservoir of instinct, refined and accumulated across the millennia, so too is there the element of unknowing as they go in the world. Pale bones decorate the river’s stony bottom like jewelry.
Work is hard in January. Words come no more or less easily, but the cold can distract you. Hunkering next to the fire in the piss-ant wood stove out in the drafty log cabin where I work, candlelight fluttering in the cold, my limbs get so chilled I often prop my feet up right by the wood stove, or stop to tuck one bare hand or the other under my armpit. Or I hold my hands out to the flames perilously close, midsentence, before continuing on.
During the deepest freezes—generally anything colder than ten below zero—the cabin is uninhabitable, even for a few minutes at a time. Instead, each morning I’ll arise at two or three, so that I can work in the warmth of the house, downstairs, before anybody wakes up. Finishing by daylight, in time to make the school run, I return from the school run disoriented and weary, and nap for half an hour or so.
Out of such irregularity, a rhythm is made, a rhythm of fatigue, as you’re stretched thinner and thinner by the odd hours, and this couples with the natural insomnia that plagues many of us in winter. Combining with the brilliant full moon, all this lures one into a world entirely different from the one the rest of the country engages in. Add to this the fact that you’re frequently working on short stories or novels, on other worlds, dreams, in which you believe deeply, worlds entirely made up, potentially disruptive. You become convinced that the bears, who for the most part don’t fight in January but instead sleep straight through it, have it right, as do all the animals that migrate. Like a prisoner, or a puppet, you might find yourself reeling on through the month, unmindful of its cost, your energy dissipating.
There are days, though, when I’m able to work out in my cabin by the marsh’s edge. Not every day is frigid. On some mornings, with new snow across the cabin roof like the warmest quilt in the world, I’ll work for two or three hours before the ice-skin between tin-roof and snow becomes slick, viscous. Suddenly, the whole shittaree releases, and the curve and arc of rooftop snow cascades past my window, followed immediately by a sparkling shower of smaller ice crystals in the big slab’s wake, crystals as shimmering as fairy dust. Soon enough the rooftop is again covered over with snow. You stare at things longer in January. Seen from the window of my writing cabin, the frozen gray limbs of the alder are a maze.
Cut as neatly as if with a knife through the forest are the trails, startlingly precise lanes made by the deer. As the snow piles higher and higher, the lanes become ever deeper, in the manner of some grand river sawing its way down through a mountain. These lanes will disappear soon enough (leaving only a strand line of deer pellets, and the shining silver hairs that were shed, and the occasional burnished mahogany antlers, as elaborate as candelabras)—but in January, these hoof-cut rivers are a dramatic part of the landscape, the only place that you and the deer can walk without sinking up to your belly in snow. The deer use these constant thoroughfares to stay alive; the few calories saved possess some equivalent of time, measured in minutes or hours if not days, moving them that much closer to the end of winter, and survival.
Winter Sludge Blood, 2001
Some people get depressed here in the valley in the long, lightless winter. I’ve talked to some of these folks and they say that it’s the strangest thing: when depression hits, they’re still fully capable of recognizing beauty, but such recognition almost makes the depression worse, for they can no longer take pleasure in it. As if there is a disconnect, some error in internal wiring that separates beauty from joy, or worse yet, enjoins beauty with sadness.
Can you imagine what it must be like for these folks, year in and year out—entering the dark tunnel of winter, knowing that it is going to knock you down, pick you up, knock you down, pick you up—the stretch and pull and compression of winter, the darkening? Scientists say it’s all about sunlight: as if we are but machines in this regard, or solar cells, fueled by the sun.
Regarding such people, it’s as if you are walking beside a river and encounter along the bank a submerged piece of driftwood, so watersoaked it no longer floats. The years have hollowed out intricate seams of weakness—have scoured out all the knots—and replaced those pores with river sediment, clay and gravel. Polished further by the years and weather, the branch assumes qualities of stone: so much so you cannot say whether the branch is made of wood or stone: It is something in between.
I would like to think that a person who has survived winter’s perhaps inevitable depression of spirit—the violent euphoria balanced by the dark—might hold such a branch and feel a connection to its patterns of erosion-and-infill, its mosaic of grit and gravel, that are of its own making, and the world’s. Buoyed up by its beauty, such a person would put the branch back into the icy river.
Because it’s January—the latest, last, farthermost part of January—that person might be on skis, rather than on foot. It might with luck be the first sunny day in weeks, brilliant and frigid, the sky cracked open with sunlight. The world breathing in full color again, rather than black-and-white. And pushing on into that bright clarity that has been missed for so long, the skier might marvel at his or her own happiness—the happiness welling up from within, happiness coming back like a migration of something in the blood, something rare and wild and elemental. And the skier might, in the onrushing return of this happiness, marvel at the very mystery of us: marveling not even at the who, what, or why of existence, but that it simply is. ▼
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