Waking to winter's riches

By

Winter.m It is naive to think it is merely a season. It is ungenerous to remember only the snow, the cold. Winter is a place; it is a foreign country on an extended excursion that travels over and through its tourists. Winter is a philosophy, a style of thought that pares down the profusion of the senses into its primary graces. Coming to our lives as early as it does, winter is an answer to a question we will ask only later on.

When I think of winter, immediately I see upstate New York, far from the metropolis; old farms beside one-lane roads; the lush low countryside turning slowly on the wheel of seasons. The bright leaves of autumn have turned limp, passive; they are lying on the ground like tired flames, and will turn black, blacker, blacker with the first icy rains and be gone, remaining only as a humus and a dark sweet odor on the wind. In the mornings, the bleached grasses on the hills wear sheaths of frost long before the first snows.

Every day I go walking with the dogs. They are wild for the exercise and mill about excitedly when I appear. There are eight of them now, between my neighbor's and mine, and they congregate in a pack outside our front door, their breath smoking the air. They don't need human permission or company to roam the hillsides; still, they wait for someone to provide the impetus for an outing. A quarter mile along the trail, and all the dogs but Gabriel have struck out on their own, chasing phantom traces of rabbits into the thicket. My dog and I cross the hill toward the stream.

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The rains of October and November gave the stream a brisk pace, a lovely music, as it bowed a crooked chord down the cleft between the hills. But by December it is a slow insistence eddying around the stones; by January, a shallow carpet of glass. Still, it is a marvelous place: of hollow banks and bared tangled roots (a suitable home for woodchucks or elves); of arched saplings and tunneled brush that shelters and invites you to sit and listen. I skim a thin shield of ice from the surface and hold it high. Bluegray sky filtered through a silver-gray lens. Gabriel is anxious, so we walk on.

For half a mile we follow a low stone wall rising up like the backbone of the hill, separating the maple trees from the maple trees. I try to imagine the clear fields these had once been; I try to imagine the father and his sons, shuttling the granite and shale off the land in their arms. Here and there I pass the apple trees (quite untended, yet so generous in the fall: sweet McIntosh, tart green Grannies to pucker the tongue). Their bare and harried branches are filled with blackbirds now.

In the slender branches of the young hawthorns, I can see small pert bundles of straw wedged into the elbows. The red- winged blackbirds are fond of nesting in these bushes; in spring, the thick leaves and sharp needles provide ample protection for the young. Now, in this chill season, the image is something of a sly contradiction: a small birthing-place nestled in a crown of thorns. It could almost be an icon for winter. Peeking down into the brittle nest, I count one, two, three small white eggs of snow.

At the top of the first hill, I choose a dry spot for my perch and survey the valley. From this vantage our house, squatting near the road, seems so frail; a pair of bony maples offer shelter. To the left a row of lanky plum trees stand like quick slashes of some draftsman's pen. Everything is breathless, still. Only the chimneys signal a trace of life: two wisps of smoke brushed along the sky.

Even without the cold, you would know winter by its aspect and demeanor: an astonishing series of gradations between tan and brown; a hundred variations on the theme of gray. Everything lean and spare; every being hardy and resolute (but supple and even submissive at the same time). The undulations of hill, rock, wood, and their many inhabitants -- huddled under a low sky that is by turns turquoise blue, pewter gray, and always strewn with clouds. I pull my dog close to my side, as much for warmth as friendship, and we spend an hour watching.

I am thinking that we judge winter carelessly at times. Do we say it is a hunger? It is more like a fasting, a thoughtful but ascetic relinquishment. Do we say it is an end, a dying of the year? It is a cleansing at the same time: a scouring of the hills, a filtering of the streams, an aging of the houses and wooden barns not unlike the deep wrinkles that can mark a human face. And for the humans and other animals, winter is a chastening from the luxury of spring and the stupor of summer. It is always, for me, an awakening -- a vast room set aside for thinking, a mind for the truest considerations, a strict measure set to attune the eyes and the heart.

By 3 p.m. the sun has already begun to vanish behind my back; by 3:30 the evening is settling on the hills. The lights come on in the kitchen below, and we head back for home.

Steaming bowls of soup, bread, cheese, butter, and laughter, hot drinks served leisurely around the fire. Conversation, books, memory, bed. When all the lights are off, I notice it has begun to snow -- great puffy feathers of snow that mount on the window ledge. We dress quickly and take to the porch. The hillside, already snow-caped, is blue-lighted by the hidden moon. You can feel it (I swear you can) breathing slowly in a dream-heavy sleep.

Then, lissome and effortless as dreams, three figures appear on the hill crest and begin a slow descent. They cross the white slope like an arcane calligraphy on a vellum page. Deer,m I say to myself, but cannot speak aloud. It is as if a single sound would break the charm and frighten them or us awake

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