A warm welcome for a tardy winter

This year, winter in Maine got off to a tepid start. When one lives in a cold place, and it doesn't behave like a cold place, strange things happen.

It hit 50 degrees F. shortly before Christmas. Warm stuff for a Maine December. Daisies were in bloom, ladybugs were crawling along the windowsills, lake water was rippling, and, as I walked through the woods, a great blue heron rose from the reeds bordering a small pond. The herons are usually gone by November, but this one slowly lifted itself on expansive wings, turned south, and then, as if perplexed, headed north.

There was no snow for quite a while, which meant there was no better reason for Mainers to speak of snow. Incessantly. For something considered a bother by most people, Mainers actually feel forward for the stuff. Someone once told me that's because the people here want something to complain about. But I think that's terribly cynical. Snow is visible confirmation that we do, indeed, live in Maine - up here in the northeast corner of the country, at the end of the line, not on the way to any place, which is the way most folks seem to like it.

But the warmth and lack of snow make people behave in peculiar ways. My son, for example. He received a snowboard as an early Christmas gift, complete with boots and bindings. Outside it was dry and barren as a bone, but that didn't keep him from strapping on the board and shunting himself back and forth over the living-room carpet.

I'VE HEARD of such behavior among parakeets. It's called "vacuum behavior." A parakeet has such a strong impulse to fly that, when allowed out of its cage, it periodically takes frantic and protracted wing. Not because it has anywhere to go or there's any hope of escape, but because the impulse to fly is overwhelming. Thus it was with Alyosha and his snowboard. The next morning, when I went to wake him, I found him in bed with the snowboard still strapped to his feet.

Vacuum behavior.

The unusual weather affected others as well. One morning I ran into a friend who had a kayak lashed to the roof of her car. "A kayak?" I questioned.

She grew stern. "Sure," she said. "Why not? I mean, do you really think it's going to snow this year?"

I understood immediately. She was angry at the winter for not being itself. By breaking out her kayak, she was hoping to move the powers that be to get back on track, become their old selves, come forth with cold, snow, and ice.

I sympathized with all of these things - the daisies, the great blue heron, my son, and the lady with the kayak. I felt something, too. I sensed myself perched, ripe for the advent of a true winter. I was not quite imploring it to arrive, but anticipating it every time I walked outside. I would look up at the sky and squint at the roving clouds, ready at any moment to blink my lids shut in case the flakes should start to come down in earnest.

If the truth be told, warmth is a bad thing for winter. Because both people and the land depend on the cold for so many things. It puts both animals and plants to rest so that they can make a decent go of it in the spring. It fills the high places with ice and snow so the rivers can perform their cleansing act when the thaw comes. It makes the pines look stately and beauteous against the stark, bare maples and poplars.

Perhaps most precious, the cold slows things down: Waterways all but cease their flow; snowy roads signal caution; community suppers in church and grange halls bring people together for long, friendly evenings; and woodstoves dictate a rhythm of wood-gathering and burning that paces us through the long, dark months.

If not for the cold, spring would not be greeted as something spectacular, or as a reward for Mainers' showing they were able to "take the winter" yet again and come out somehow better for it.

I TRIED to explain some of these observations to my son; but he has learned the adolescent trick of displaying higher intelligence by looking at me as if I came from a primitive, less-sophisticated culture. I think, though, that he liked my thoughts about learning to love the cold. He is, after all, in possession of a brand-new snowboard, and in the interim, since the winter's warm preamble, temperatures have dropped and heavy snows have fallen. Both Alyosha and I will now enjoy this appropriately cold season, each in his own way.

My living-room carpet, too, if it could speak, would be grateful.

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