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Beyond the Bite of Winter

By Russell Lee Whitney / January 22, 1993

WINTER with a vengeance. The temperature has been dropping steadily since the midafternoon and now registers minus 12 Fahrenheit. The wind has picked up. I get out the overalls, the lumberjack, and my down vest, the knitted cap of an indestructible, unknown fiber, and my leather mitts with knitted wool liners. Then I struggle into shoe-paks with thick felt liners and recall the slightly claustrophobic sense, in childhood, of being encased in a heavy snowsuit with all the trimmings. Standing up, I open th e inside kitchen door, pick up two water buckets, and push open the aptly named storm door. Closing the doors behind me, I edge out onto the porch for the evening trip to the barn.

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The cold air bites at me as it streams around the corner of the house, and I think for the first time this year of finding a really big muffler to wrap my neck and face in. The side porch complains loudly as I walk across it, carrying water to the cows. Creak, groan, creak, groan.

Going down the path to the barn, I look out across the valley at lights maybe three miles away glowing white and yellow, green and blue, at the highway, and at farms down the valley. They are always there, except when it is snowing hard. Usually in the summer they have a friendly softness to them, but tonight they are only points of sharp light with diamond edges, slicing through the snapping air.

Only 100 yards or so separate house and barn. From the porch down to the big poplar trees, the path twists and turns to avoid the worst of the drifts piled up in the last storm; it snakes down beside the house as if reluctant to go too far from warmth and light. Come a storm or high wind, the path disappears like a camel track in the desert; it is reinvented in more-or-less the same place when the storm is over or the wind has dropped. The present path has lasted for several weeks, and beneath my feet th e snow sounds rubbery as I walk. It shifts unpredictably on the ice underneath it, treacherous to the unwary step.

Overhead the sky is completely clear. The earth lies open to the black emptiness above, its heat a raging furnace in comparison to the chill of outer space. The air bites my poor ears and nose with bitter cold. Moving deeper into the dark and away from the warm yellow light from the kitchen windows, I am suddenly struck with a sense of tremendous loneliness.

On a night like this, the earth's heat flows unhindered upward, up through this cozy soup of atmosphere we live in, up past thin air like that at the top of Mount Everest, still up past the highest cirrus clouds, and into that strange region of the aurora borealis. At last it's blown away by the great wind of particles streaming off the sun into the emptiness of space. It seems cold comfort that that space holds a circle of inner planets - Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars - around a cozy star.

But all the heat this earth respires has no more effect on nearby space than the heat escaping from our kitchen had on the cold outdoors.

I shiver as I walk along, and the shiver is only partly the instinctive response of warm blood to cold air. The strangeness of this tangle of things we call life and earth and home strikes more deeply on a dark winter night, I think.