For those of you in the cold and for those of us trying to imagine it.
Neighborhood of Zero
When the thermometer bottoms out, I remember, again, that winter isn’t a season, it’s a place. Just over the hill is the 19th century, and somewhere beyond the river lies the 18th. Why winter should seem so much more continuous with the past than summer does is never clear to me. But this morning it’s 3 degrees, and I can hear Melville, a few miles north of where I am, writing to his sister: “The weather here has been as cold as ever. Other than the weather I know not what to write about from Pittsfield.”
That’s how it feels in the neighborhood of zero. There is no “other than the weather.” I feed the woodstove, keep the diesel pickup plugged in, and admire the fortitude of the crows. On the reservoirs, a couple of Canada geese walk along the edge of the ice as though they were lifeguards. The rivers — all but the Hudson — dwindle to a narrow sluice of dark water. It takes an effort to remember that the water, which looks so bitterly cold, is the warmest element in the landscape.
As dusk comes, the temporal illusion seems to gain strength. The snowmobile tracks that cross the fields fade, and I imagine a huddled figure coming through the trees and stumping down the hill as if he had walked right out of the distant past and was making his way toward the lights of this house. The smoke from the chimney smells completely familiar to him, whatever century he comes from. And about then in my private storytelling, I remember that I’m living in the warmer, brighter future that everyone in the country of winter has always aspired to.A couple of nights ago, dusk brought a different illusion. The clouds had been hammered flat. But in the last few moments of afternoon, the sun slid below the overcast, coming out strong and red along the rim of the horizon. It brought no real warmth. But I could not help feeling that this was the sun of summer shining all the way back into winter’s heart; just a glimpse to see how we were all doing here huddled together. That was enough to turn my thoughts to soil and seeds and new shoots rising.