Grown to middle age, my calico is placid and content. She spends her days searching for perfect napping spots, occasionally indulging herself in bird-watching at the window. Long past the enthusiasms of kittenhood, her favorite excitement is shredding cheap tissue paper. She prefers white, although she’ll work with colored if she has to, and each Sunday she gets a dozen sheets. For the next week she rolls in it, hides under it, buries toys in it and claws at it, until nothing is left but ribbony shreds and bits of paper.
Despite her increasing years and even temper, she dislikes every sort of storm. Lightning brings her to electrified attention; thunder triples the size of her tail in a flash. The approach of a winter cold front sets her pacing for days. Once a low has crossed the Red River, she begins to move restlessly from room to room. By the time it gets to Dallas, she’s tearing full-tilt through the house, circling around and around until she collapses in a panting heap. She’s survived several tropical storms and two hurricane evacuations, and what she lacks in scientific knowledge she makes up for in pure instinct – she knows they’re bad. When her people begin to fuss and mutter about systems still hundreds of miles away, she’ll head to her carrier, snuggle down into her sheepskin and wait it out: wide-eyed, anxious, uttering low, undeciperable sounds she reserves for rising storms.
She has a lot in common with her people. When a storm is brewing, the air is charged as much with nervousness as electricity. Anxiety and fear mix with a strange excitement. Conversations grow a little louder, chatter becomes a bit more insistent. As weather bulletins increase in frequency, questions become more pointed and attention more focused. We may say we want the storm to turn, to dissipate, to wander and die, but we’re equally eager to see what Nature might have up her sleeve this time. We’re like children convinced goblins are living in the closet – overcome as much by curiosity as by our wonderful terror.
The strange combination of fear and fascination accompanies winter storms as well as summer. N’oreasters, blizzards, white-outs, ice – we hate the interruptions they bring to our lives, the complications, the immobility. And yet, and yet… There is a compulsion that overtakes us, an insistent need to feel nature’s effects, to walk, to measure, to experience the howl of the wind and the hush of new-fallen snow. We become spellbound as much as snowbound, in thrall to the swirl of the storm:
The night is darkening ’round me,
the wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
and I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
their bare boughs weighed with snow.
And the storm is fast descending,
and yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
wastes beyond wastes below;
but nothing dear can move me;
I cannot, will not go.
Emily Brönte, Spellbound
Brönte had it right. As much as the storms of summer, winter storms are compelling: exciting and beautiful. Unfortunately, winter is more than storms. Vita brevis, ars longa, as the saying has it. But on this side of Solstice, Vita brevis, ars longa, et hiems longius seems more appropriate: life is short, art long, and winter even longer. December passes quickly enough with celebration and holiday distractions. January arrives with all the hopes of a New Year, a sense of renewed purpose and optimism. But now it is bleak mid-winter, the season of sighing, and waiting, and longing for an end to cold, darkness and similitude. As the exultation of Brönte’s storm passes, the endurance of winter begins. It is the patience of a sickroom, the shock of unexpected absence, the tedium of sleeplessness that marks creation as the world waits in quiet resignation for a turning of the season, the lengthening of days, the coming of the light.
In the bleakness of mid-winter, the world grows quiet. Creatures seem to evaporate, leaving only tracks in freshly fallen snow. Where beauty walks the land she leaves no tracks but goes and comes in secret, like a wraith. For the watchers from the windows, for the walkers beneath the moon, for every harsh and glittering star reflected in the sparkle of the snow, time seems to stop. Pondering the demands and joys of the days ahead, I find myself compelled to stop and turn, leaving the accustomed road of essays for Brönte’s more poetic path. Come along, and enjoy a winter’s walk.
The Grammarian in Winter
Winter speaks in passive voice,
Conjugates brief slants of light
and parses out its stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon fine participles gleam,
dangling remnant leaves pulled free by time
and tumbled down the sloping winds,
evocative declensions of a season soon unbound.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold the blackened ferns grow crisp and shatter at a touch.
Split by hoarfrost, fences drip, refreeze and lean across the land.
Silent, shrouded in the pond’s same breath,
cattle cast their spellbound gaze past perfect sweeps of snow
as if to skry spring’s synonym
and punctuate the sentence of the hills.
Photographs are courtesy of Weather Underground photographers bionicdan, barsik and shutterbug1, respectively. Please click on each image to be taken to their site for more photos.
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