Winter nears its tipping point

At a certain point late in February, there comes a day when you realize that you are pivoting.

The junipers may still be shagged with ice. Ice-fishing shacks still colonize the lakes. No one yet dares to remove their snow tires. However, you can feel a gentle shift of weight. It's like the heavy keel of a sailboat, unseen below the waterline, counterbalancing a tack to port; like the switch from climbing to descending on the crest of a hill; like the switch from pedaling hard against inertia to coasting with gravity.

Something Gene said to me in the market recently further defined the pivotal moment: "A day like this gives you hope." As he bagged my milk and potato chips at the checkout counter, Gene was inspired by the sunny, warm late-winter vibe of this Sunday in Maine. Up here we skip "Paper or plastic?" and cut to the chase.

"Newton's laws make it fairly predictable," I replied. I know only a smidgen about Sir Isaac's physics, save a vague sense of their description of bodies in motion staying reliably in motion - a constant that orders local changes; the scientific explanation for today's climatic poetry.

The aforementioned climb starts when folks here on the coast of Maine hunker down for winter. We draw in, close up, pull boats out of the water - literally and figuratively. I've noticed a tendency to hunch over a little, heading into the teeth of December's cold and dark, then truly button up for January's storms.

So when a February day such as this arrives, it is a welcome augury. You can relax a little, shrug, rebound like birches after an ice storm. We lighten: There are 20 more minutes of daylight this week, we realize. The celestial bodies really are in motion. Orion's days are numbered. The summer constellations await just over the southern horizon.

Winter must relax its talons after all, dropping us to the meadow. We will find ourselves among lambs in clover, gamboling down to summer. But first, there are stages, like thermoclines, to pass through, beginning with fuel.

As I look down the slope toward March, this climbing down is filled with an expectation of "making it." When Gary pulls up in his blue truck to fill our oil tank, it will take fewer gallons than last week. The furnace rumbles less frequently, for shorter bursts. The sun is higher, toasting the front rooms later into the afternoon, to the delight of the cats luxuriating on windowsills.

Our cellar log pile shrinks, but looks like it will be enough for the next few weeks of woodstove fires. In early February, I worried about running out. Now, I know we'll make it to the day when we no longer need to augment the passive solar heat.

The next stage is mud.

Just two days ago, we could rely on frozen ground everywhere - no fear of getting sucked into the soft shoulder of the road. Now, it will all be mud, the shallower frost a message to woodcutters that they have only a little time to finish skidding trees for next year's cordwood before the ground will no longer support their tires. The final push is on!

Whereas yesterday our car and truck had been immobilized on ice, now they are immobilized in dark oozing paste. It will freeze over nightly, elasticize by mid-morning, and record critter traffic: four cats, one large dog, sundry squirrels, raccoons, porcupine and deer foraging among the neighbor's cedar hedge.

Coming soon: skunks. My thoughts shift to other arrivals: friends reporting sightings of birds they have not seen or heard in months. The very notion of things returning is itself a key harbinger. I think an early cardinal is a brilliant proof of Newton's second law.

The next stage is seeds.

Talk among gardeners turns to seed catalogs long before the soil can be forked. I was thinking "seeds" when I found four storm windows languishing by a dumpster. They were just right to cover the cold frames we're building, so I unscrewed them from their gaunt, discarded window frames and trucked them home.

Potting-soil packs on windowsills will sprout, and cold- weather crops will begin to harden off a few hours at a time in the frames. Of course, peas go right into the ground on St. Patrick's day, defiant of any forecast, even snow. Newton's second law predicts an August zucchini glut.

The final stage is buds.

If we're really yearning, it won't be long until a few lilac sprigs from the side yard can be clipped and vased indoors, forced to corroborate the inevitable: Spring is truly just ahead. The resident poet best defines my sense of this climb down from winter:

Now March, in noon sun,

a small snowfield, bright

as a high arctic summer.

Deep in glanced light,

old stonewalls tumble

through conifers, back

in woodlots without

a leaf left, far from

October's gold leaves

that blind a man, or tug

him toward May's first

green to replay Eden.*

We're there.

*Excerpt from 'Reach Road: In Medias Res 3,' by Philip Booth.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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