Keeping Watch Over Vast Winter Nights

WINTER in Whitney Valley, Ore., brought a radical change in all my routines. Cutting the wild meadow hay I had irrigated into a heavy crop marked the beginning of my run toward winter. The contractor's crew baled the hay and hauled it down to the owner's home ranch. Riders brought the cattle out of Forest Service range down onto the meadows soon after the hay was hauled away, so I checked the fences again to make sure my summer's repairs had stood the tests of time. I repaired ditches and set them up for

the next spring's irrigation.

Then I cut and sold firewood. There was no ranch work to be done in winter, so what I made from firewood paid our way until spring.

When the first heavy snow came, we fed cattle for about two weeks, until the crew from the home ranch could get up with trucks to haul them down the river road or with horses to drive them down. Then I cut and sold more wood.

When storms delivered enough snow that getting across the river and the meadow to the beetle-killed trees and getting the wood out became difficult or impossible, most of the outdoor work was finished, and my winter routine began.

I helped with our daughters' education. I skied on the meadow and investigated what the animals who had not left for the winter were doing. Whatever daytime activities I pursued during our coldest times, I pursued them late in the day, because I stayed up all night.

There was nothing automatic about the old, inadequately insulated, electricity-less, plumbing-less house we lived in. There was no thermostat that we could set and leave in charge of keeping the house warm through the night.

We had a wood-fired heater in the living room and another in the back room. The back room was the master bedroom, my study, our conference room, reading room, and play room. It was better insulated than the rest of the house, since a friend and I had removed the inner and outer walls and then put the room back together with insulated walls and ceiling.

We had a wood-fired cookstove in the kitchen. On cold nights, I kept fires burning briskly in all three stoves.

I positioned three kerosene lamps on my study table in the back room, and I wrote and read between times of feeding wood into stoves.

There was no other time like those night times, remote from all the commercial world, very much in contact with the earth at its most elemental. I was independent in my thoughts and my way of living, yet dependent on the orderly progress of the night, the orderly progress of each fire contained in each stove for survival minute-by-minute, and depended on for survival by my wife and daughters, who were soundly sleeping.

I had built the flue that carried away the back room heater's smoke, and I knew it was safe. My friend Ash, a stonemason, and I had repaired the brick flue that served the living-room heater and the cookstove, and I had replaced the wood-shingle roof, where a spark might settle and start a fire, with galvanized metal roofing.

I walked some of those cold nights, but not far. Even though I thought the stoves and flues were safe, I wasn't willing to leave them untended for long. I could close the stoves down, so the fires burned low, but the house cooled off rapidly when I did that. I wouldn't leave the fires roaring while I walked, so I had to get back soon. I took a brisk walk or trotted down the graveled road, which was sometimes plowed free of snow.

I sat at my writing table. Kerosene lamps do not glare like electric lights do. I could still see out the windows, to the snowy, moonlit night. The story or the essay or the poem progressed.

Sometimes I blew out all the lamps and let moonlight or starlight, magnified by its reflection from the clean white snow, light up the night. I took my guitar and played and sang, gentle songs that would not wake those sleeping in the house.

The moonlight shadow of the smoke rising above the chimney danced on the snow. It was the only motion all across the meadow at 2 a.m. Sometimes, during the coldest nights, I was startled when an explosion echoed across the meadow. I think this happens when the sap in a tree freezes solid and bursts the tree. I don't know why it happens to a few trees and not all. I am favorably impressed by my and everyone else's lack of knowledge on this and many other important subjects.

I am favorably impressed by how delicate humans are when not surrounded by all the mechanical paraphernalia that protects them and alienates them from a natural environment. I was impressed by how tiny the house was in the vast winter, how very thin the walls were at 40 degrees below zero, or at our all-time low temperature of 56 below.

I was not the only one awake on those cold nights. Sometimes I heard an owl call from over by the barn. Another answered from across the meadow, up in the timber. Coyotes sang a song at 3 a.m., over in the timber, up by the spring in the aspen.

I achieved some good work those cold winter nights - essays, stories, poems, and songs that I still like a lot. Projects progressing through the night knit the night watch together, but the projects were not the most important part. The deep cold, the vast winter nights, the infinite heaven spread out above testified to our tiny human endeavors. My experience, humankind's experience, at its best or at its worst, is insignificant against the vastness of winter and 56 degrees below zero.

Watching the cold nights through was humbling and humanizing, an experience I recommend as a prerequisite to understanding humankind's role in the universe. The experience brought me depth of perspective that I could not have found anywhere else, that adds to everything I have experienced since.

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