On the coldest morning of the season, when the day dawns just above zero and the expected high is only 5 degrees; on the same day when the windchill will plunge to the minus double digits, and I’ll drive home through pockets of swirling snow […]
August in the mountains and I can feel summer begin to ebb. At the prairie house, I‘d be staring down the barrel of at least two more months of way-too-hot-for-me weather, while nearly 4000 feet higher this morning’s temperature registered in the upper 40s. Already the days have cooled from what passes as scorching in late June and July—a burning, high altitude 85 degrees–and there are nights when I pull an extra comforter over the bed as we sleep with the French doors thrown wide. Last night, eating dinner on the deck, Greg and I noticed a few gold aspen leaves on a single tree and there’s been an increased urgency at the hummingbird feeders: both harbingers of what is to come. We are each a bit dreamy about the first snowfall, talking about waking up to soft down falling from the sky and the hopeful luxury of a morning in bed. Meanwhile, we spent our Sunday hauling a cord of split pine to add to the half cord of rounds we already have—our insurance policy against cold autumn days as we wait for oak delivery in December.
Although it goes without saying that we feel a bit frantic with the twin imperatives of settling in to our new home coupled with our before-winter laundry list of tasks—service the furnace, sweep the chimney, fix and stain the deck, make a space for Greg’s workshop beneath the carport, get plants in the ground—I am happy to be back where my days are ordered by weather, where I can rely on the season to take the lead instead of the force of my go-go-go personality. How lovely to give into a blessedly cool and rainy day with a book on the couch or spend the quiet of October snow by the fireplace. What bliss to forego the trip to town because it means an 80 minute round trip drive to do one more errand.
I need excuses to relax—and nature provides.
Already I’ve noticed a calmness come over my too often too sharp edges; although the days are indeed crowded with tasks, my mind isn’t registering on full tilt. Gone are the distractions of the prairie house, the feeling of being constantly stimulated by heat, by sound, by the proximity of people. There, the volume on my brain too often blared a discordant tune, distractions registering as anxiety-producing static. Interestingly, I believe I come by this condition by blood. My father used to say that loud music bothered him, asking my teenage brothers and me to turn the stereo down lower, lower. He blamed his sensitivity on working for so many years inside Cheyenne Mountain where the industrial hum of 1970s refrigerator-sized computers marked his days.
But I believe it’s biology. Like me, my father settled in the mountains. I don’t know the name for what I suspect is our shared brain chemistry is, all I know is that my head needs space and distance to help calm it down, I need the natural world to balance me out, something I had very little of in our house in a prairie town circled by highways.
This morning, after four years of holding my breath for comfort, for solace, my mind is on winter, and the prospect of dark, cave-like days on the mountain, along with the utter stillness of winter nights and the solace each provides. The feeling is like slowly eating cake with butter cream icing, like a good red wine, like waking from a deep sleep wrapped in another’s embrace: Let it come.
Winter arrives, just in the nick of time.
I’ve been rushing and rushing pulling the threads of my daily to-do lists tight, holding my breath for what seems like months now as I stare down the barrel of a glorious three week holiday break which—Ready-Set-Go!–begins today. Instead of a long sigh of relief, I have a whole kettle of items shoved from the back burner to the front, dozens of ways to fill my between semester days.
And then something happened: On the first day of winter, along with fresh snow—perhaps the 3rd storm of the year–my galleys arrived.
I opened the box, pulled out a book and took the copy back to bed. And I read.
Rough Beauty tracks forty seasons of mountain living; in it, I tells stories of spring and fall and summer and spring–but it’s winters that I wrote of most. They left an impression in my skin—not the shock of cold or the persistent high altitude wind, not the hardship remote living or the inherent loneliness–but the luxury of emptiness, the long curve of nothing. Winters on the mountain exist in my memory as the space between breath, as the moment in meditation just before you realize you haven’t moved or had a single thought or felt the creak of your limbs for a long long time.
This morning, the day dawned a crisp 9 degrees. There’s ice on the single pane glass in the bedroom and storm windows I have yet to close. In the dark before the sun came up, I breathed in the cold and, for just one dreamy moment, thought of my little cabin on Overland Mountain where December meant I often rose to the sight of my own breath and tumbled from bed to put on my winter woolie, hat and gloves, and tug on sheep skin boots to light a fire. Living at 8500 feet, I could not ignore the fact of low light and short days, or the quiet of the winter woods, the feeling of absence on the mountain, the long dreaming nights.
I miss those days. The wide silences, the feeling of letting everything go. It’s harder to do here on the edge of our prairie town, where I can jet to the store to pick up forgotten celery for tonight’s roast chicken and cars hum along busy parkways on two sides; where the snow is never deep enough to force a day at home.
But my book arrived on the first day of winter along with new snow and as far as I’m concerned that is a clear thunk on the head from the cosmos: Time to slow the fuck down. The past twelve months I have been too much in the sun, juggling cavalcades of things. It’s the dark night of the year and we should each revel in it. This afternoon I will put a chicken on to roast and start the bordelaise sauce for our Christmas roast. Cooking always calms me down, always forces me to pay attention to what’s in front of me right now. When Greg and I sit down to dinner in our living room lit with strings and strings of lights, we’ll toast the long winter nights and my new book, which features Greg’s watercolors, holding this life in our hands and marveling at the sheer beauty we’ve made.