Bracing Oneself Against the Allure Of the Icy North

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In Maine it is possible to divide people into two groups: those who chill easily and those who don't chill at all.

I fall into the former category, a significant liability in a place where the first snows frequently arrive in October and do not depart this venue until April - six months of virtual winter.

My situation is made more interesting by the fact that I live with someone who falls into the second category: my 11-year-old son, who just this morning, when the thermometer lingered at 20 degrees F., went outside in shorts to check on the condition of his snow fort. I watched from the heated side of our kitchen window, and the sight of him trudging undaunted through the drifts sent a shiver down my spine. How could he do that? How could he?

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The pursuit of warmth is a prime occupation in Maine. I have never lived in a place with more heating-oil companies or more stores that deal in woodstoves. Despite our latitude, even solar energy companies are making a go of it. I know of a farmer who insulated his entire house with sheep's wool. And in a town north of my home, an ingenious man has invented a furnace that will burn anything, including old boots and Coke bottles. In this corner of the world, cold truly is the mother of invention.

Just before the recent holidays I set out on my annual drive for a good $4 wreath for my front door. A few miles outside of Bangor I spotted some for sale by the side of the road. The display was next to the tiniest house I had ever seen, its frame warped and its roof so old that moss was growing between the asphalt shingles. I picked out my wreath, knocked on the door, and in the next moment was confronted by a small, elderly woman bundled in sweaters. I looked past her and saw the one room she lived in, and in the center was a bulldog of a woodstove, glowing red at the joints and hissing.

"How are you today?" I greeted her. To which she replied, "Keeping warm."

I immediately felt a kinship with the wreath lady, realizing that she too was one of the chilled. I paid her the $4 and left with my prize.

I have often wondered why people live in cold places. The word "allure" is identified with the North but never with the South. It is as if there is a pull from the boreal reaches of the earth, a seductively benign danger associated with "going North." The very idea connotes risky behavior, a grappling with forces that put an exclamation point on the act of living. E. Annie Proulx, in her recent novel "The Shipping News," said it best when she described her main character as going north to Newfoundland "because he needed something to brace himself against."

For those of us who have consciously chosen to live in the North, then, it is a need. A need to be where every winter day is a fresh invigoration and the seasons are written in Braille. Where bodies are bundled to the point of immobility, houses are banked against the wind with bags of autumn leaves, and someone stops to pick up a windfallen branch for the moment of warmth it may yield in a wood stove. In the South it is possible to lose track of time, but in the North - never: Here the thermometer is read before the morning paper, the sap rises in the maples in February as sure as the snow continues to fall, and any second-grader can explain the winter solstice.

It is easy to celebrate the North as long as one has a warm place to go. I'm sure Robert Frost had this in mind when he wrote:

Now close the windows and hush all the fields:

If the trees must, let them silently toss;

No bird is singing now, and if there is,

Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,

It will be long ere the earliest bird:

So close the windows and hear not the wind,

But see all wind-stirred.

The culture of the North keeps me here, in spite of the cold. Yet I can't help thinking of those who might be here because of circumstances beyond their control. In this light, I was recently moved to commemorate the efforts of a fellow Mainer to stay warm. Brushing the new snow from my woodpile, I put together a tight bundle of kindling. Then I drove a few miles outside of Bangor, to the shack where the wreath lady lived. Silently, and leaving only footprints in the snow as a sign of my passing, I laid the bundle at her doorstep and drove away.

We are all in this together.

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