Beyond the Bite of Winter

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.

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.

A few months from now, when the grass and the flowers of our Canadian spring almost explode from the ground, and the air, filled with strange, sweet bird songs, seems to enfold all living things, then, I think, it will be easy to be alive. Then, there will be no sense of boundary. Life flows on, and our life flows with all life.

But on this evening in the deep of winter when the wind blows coldly through the poplar's bare branches and the sky is so clear, life seems a queer thing, a chance occurrence, the exception rather than the rule. My shiver is partly a shiver of loneliness.

I turn, just before the trees, to cross the driveway near the chicken house, and as I come out from under the trees into the clear air, I look up into the blackness above the valley. Who can imagine such emptiness? Am I looking out or am I looking in? And then, suddenly, it happens.

Above me a familiar figure, a pattern in the void, draws my eye. Looking out or looking in, I wonder. Emptiness organizes itself, ceases to be emptiness, and links me to a home whose doorway is all time and the starry heavens too.

Some star map I saw as a child dressed Orion in Roman garb, with short skirt, his left arm holding a lion skin as a kind of shield, a sword hanging from the stars of his belt, and a mighty club upraised against the bull who bears down on him. Now I just see the pattern of stars, and above him, to the southwest, the V of the head of Taurus, the bull. Below him, to the southeast, I recognize Sirius, the dog star, the shining eye of Canis Major, Orion's faithful companion.

Between the chicken house and the barn, I pause. There in the sky is all the glory of the starry heavens, shining as only they can when the air is cold and clear. Such a collection of wonders! Suddenly I feel a sense of oneness with others, throughout the ages, who have looked into the night sky warms me. I see and recognize, besides Orion, other familiar presences twinkling against the black.

There is Procyon, the other dog star; Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins; bright Capella; the Pleiades; the seven sisters, daughters of the Greek god Atlas and his wife, Pleione; and below them this winter, the unwinking star of reddish Mars, god of war.

It is still bitterly cold and the wind stings tears from my eyes. Even in gloves my fingers are smarting from grasping the handles of the water buckets. As I turn to finish my path, I wonder at the curious joy this chilly night has brought me.

I reach the door to the barn and go in to that smaller darkness. With a flip of a switch, the dark flees and emptiness becomes a familiar place.

Thomas Not-a-Tom meets me as usual, purring. The other cats begin to appear: Cally, Spitz, Lopsie, Queenie. Anka, the little heifer, sticks her nose over the top of her stall in greeting. From the other end of the floor comes the sound of clashing stanchions as Maggie and John the steer rise in expectation.

"Hello, Maggie," I say to my cow as I put a bucket of water in front of her and do the same for John. Going back to the walkway, I open the big door behind John, take the shovel and begin to muck out.

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