Feb 7, 2014
I believe you can’t know Summer unless you’ve known Winter. You can’t appreciate a great lover unless you’ve had a truly bad one. You can’t understand joy—in the present or in retrospect—unless you’ve known sorrow. You can’t have the good stuff, in the sense of ownership, the conscious awareness that you have it, unless you haven’t had it, whatever “it” is.
There’s no hope of ease in the absence of at least a little dis-ease.
That sounds perverse, on the surface of it. Nonetheless, I believe it’s true. We, all of us, need a referent. And when one is not immediately available, we create it. In the absence of clear and present danger, we manufacture it. As if the threat of extermination is what’s demanded to wake us up to consciousness of the thing itself, even when that “thing” is our own life.
Perhaps the extent to which we are “fallen” from the Earth-Eden we inhabit is the extent to which we manufacture ever-harsher endurance trials, ever-more strident wake-up calls and breathtaking near misses. Opportunities to snatch ourselves from the brink of social, environmental, geo-political or personal health disaster and declare: “Thank God I’m alive!” And actually mean it, at least for a time. We are, as a species, forgetful and lazy, easily bored.
Perhaps we set ourselves up for disaster, again and again, for the sole purpose of forcing ourselves to remember why our lives matter to us. After all, when “real life” fails to deliver enough nail-biting trauma, we line up to receive a vicarious dose through the movies.
For all these reasons and more, I abide Winter (all five or more months of it) on my Allegheny Mountain ridge. No need to manufacture a referent here. Winter is a seasonal “disaster” of sorts that never fails to knock a knot on my head, slap me around, and remind me how good (Andy Griffith Ritz Cracker Goood) life is here in Summer.
To abide, in the sense I intend, means something different than mere obedience or tolerance. To abide is to remain in a place and endure. To endure Winter at Brightside is to carry on, to last it out. What makes this possible for me, I think, is my interest in being awake to Winter. Since I am here, I might as well be here, with all my senses.
Not that this is easy. Oh no. Fretting and moaning about the horrible weather is easy. Asking myself aloud, full-diva, how long this can go on is easy. Abandoning all hope is easy. Staying power is hard because staying power requires grabbing myself by the shoulders and exhorting myself to focus! Perhaps nothing more nor less than the capacity to remain awake to the present circumstance, staying power is a matter of will. Staying power is the choice not to crawl back under the covers on yet another frozen-foggy morning. To have staying power is to do the thing that must be done, to persist. And in this sense, it is no different for me here than for anyone anywhere on Earth.
To abide Winter is, in the simplest yet most inscrutable terms, to remain awake to the moment. No presumptions. No foreclosures.
I reach into a Winter nestbox and retrieve a still-warm egg. In subzero temperatures that egg will soon freeze solid and crack, as many do before I get to them. Not today. Today I lift from the cedar chips an egg that’s not merely unfrozen but still warm. Incredibly good timing! I smile, wandering in the unlikelihoods of the moment: The Caribbean blue-green of the shell, sharp wood tang of the cedar, animal warmth of the egg, flakes of snow on my face. A fully sensory experience, rich in contrast and underwritten by the miracle of surprise. The eggs laid by our hens appeal to me as gifts in any season, but never so much as in Winter. When I stand on the ridge in the blowing snow and tuck a warm egg into my pocket, I know beauty I could not know if my life here were limited to the relative ease of Summer.
An early morning departure puts me at the end of our drive where it merges with Old Pike Road. I spot a group of deer grazing among the baby evergreens. I stop the truck on snow glittering so gaudily in the dawn-light it seems scattered with Swarovski crystals. I roll down the window just a couple inches. We exchange glances. Hello Deer! One by one, each animal leaps loftily—white tail held high—over my split rail fence, onto the Old Pike, and with another leap, into the field beyond. Olympic gymnasts at ease, showing off for the home crowd. I cheer. It's a scene from a National Geographic photographer’s dream: Dark coats, white tails, glittering diamond-strewn snow, split rail fence, evergreens. A scene I would never see if I weren’t present for Winter.
In the middle of the night, I hear the sounds of a party. Must be a dream. Whooping and laughing. Fans of the winning team at a football game. Boo-rah! But there are no football games anywhere near here. I sit up, throw back the covers, open the window behind the bed. Coyotes. I lean toward the sound. Precious few sounds of any sort penetrate the deep silence of Allegheny Mountain Winter. My skin prickles as the barking, laughing, hootin’ and hollerin’ goes on and on. If coyotes throw a party in the wilderness and no human hears it, is it still a party? Hell, yeah. The thought occurs, with a naughty frisson, that I’ve actually been snooping. It’s not that I haven’t heard coyotes before. I’ve heard them in Summer, amid the relative cacophony of insects and birds and photosynthesis. Which is to suggest that I’ve heard them with a different set of ears.
Many Winters came and went before I learned that an appointment with Winter isn’t one to miss, although it’s always hard to keep. But then Winter isn’t about easy, as I’ve mentioned, it’s about staying. And one thing Allegheny Mountain Winter requires is the ability to stay inside oneself, to pull oneself in, turtle-like, and sit with whatever’s there until Spring returns.
So it is when the black-and-white landscape turns my thoughts toward the circle of life, I follow the circle, no longer seeking refuge in some eternal Florida of the psyche. I seek to endure the season, as both a physical and mental traveler. Winter is the time, frankly, to appreciate death. It is the time, if ever there is one, to get acquainted with the inevitable. To those who say such thoughts are morbid, my only response is: Wake up! Death doesn’t pass you over because you refuse to admit she exists. And, as far as I can tell, after long experience trying, you get no “special points” for putting your hands over your ears and humming whenever the subject comes up. (Wish I could report otherwise, but I can’t!)
In Spring when seeds are sprouting, in Summer when the garden is in full flower and fruit, in Fall as I rush to harvest before Winter arrives again, death supports the life that surges all around me. Every shovelful of compost, every pruned branch, every tilled row, every planted seed, every picked fruit, every sweaty step until Earth turns to iron and water to stone once again.
My choice to abide Winter teaches me this hard true fact: I must be here now, so I can be there, then. No shortcuts. No workarounds. No easy pass. I can’t have that without being here for this.