Winter has always been my favorite season. The silence, the stillness, the strange brightness of a night full of snow and stars, all these things have always made winter feel like a secret, and I’ve never understood those who dreaded its arrival.
Until this year. This year, winter was a smothering gloom I struggled and struggled to get through. As happy to be at home and in my head as I always am, months nine through twelve of the pandemic wore me down to the nub and made the world dark.
But now, with temperatures jumping high enough, fast enough to make the sap in the maples stop flowing as soon as it’s begun (very much a bad thing to be sure), I’m happy to drink in the light—and to see others doing the same—when I go out to walk by the road in the shallow mud left behind by the receding snow.
Also the geese are back, and they feel as much like a miracle as ever.
Talking about a “new normal” a few weeks ago felt like hysteria, but it seems pretty clear that many of the changes in daily life brought on by the COVID pandemic will be with us for the rest of the year.
The most obvious example is the rumblings about online courses in the Fall. Nothing’s been announced officially yet, but a few days ago I accepted that I should begin thinking about what classes given entirely online would look like. The difference between a course that finishes online and one offered there exclusively is like the difference between a whale and a fish: many of their similarities are only apparent and fall away when you pay closer attention. I’ve only just started and already I’m reconsidering things I took to be fundamental.
So with the promise of months of social distancing to come and plenty of work to do along the way, I’m grateful to be out of the city far enough to be able to sit outside watching the river or to take walks around the fields. I’m locked down but not confined, and I’m close enough to the natural world to see the muskrat swimming along the banks of the river or the mourning doves nesting under a corner of the roof or the squirrel braving the road to get at the stand of trees beyond the pavement.
It helps to see these creatures moving along at a familiar rhythm in a world that they take to be largely unchanged.
We have a silver maple that’s been battered a bit the past few winters and has some dead branches that need to be removed. Until we get around to taking care of them, it looks like the local woodpeckers—and there’re a lot of them these days because of the Emerald Ash Borers that are marching through the village’s trees—the woodpeckers are going to have a go at them.
The woodpecker in the video is as big as a cat and he went on like this for a few days. He’s clearly digging into the wood rather than looking for bugs under the bark, and so, I thought maybe he was gauging out a nest. But when he finally decided he was done, he took off and started hacking away at the stump of an ash tree we cut down last spring, a stump he soon abandoned in turn. So in the end, I’m not sure what he was up to. Until I learn better, I’m going to call it “play.”
Whatever the case, the maple branch is torn to pieces.
Last weekend we had the first sunny days in weeks (but it felt like months). So the Beav suggested we go walking on the river. Now, I know the ice is solid at this point. The snowmobiles are running up and down daily. But I lived in the heat too long as a child to be comfortable on frozen rivers and lakes and wasn’t keen on the idea.
Then he suggested we walk up a side creek he’d been wanting to canoe with his sister in the summer. This sounded less ominous: slower shallower water awaited if we broke through (which we wouldn’t and didn’t). This became our day.
This spring my garden asked to become a pumpkin patch and I said “sure” because why not? Now months later, the skies are greying, the nights come earlier and earlier each day. It’s colder, frost has fallen more than once and the harvest is finally in.
Last year when my Mom visited for Thanksgiving—Canadian Thanksgiving, in October, not the American holiday in November—we decorated my newly rebuilt porch with strange pumpkins and squash. I fetched a birch log from the wood pile, and we had a holiday arrangement that looked good enough to keep around for weeks rather than days.
After the first freeze though, everything sagged. So I went out, collected the soft fruit and tossed everything in the garden. Winter came. Then this spring, I went out to turn the soil and everything had broken apart and come to pieces. I saw seeds, but ignored them. They sprouted though, and I’ve kept them all, pushing them back off the peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and rhubarb, but otherwise giving them free rein to do what they’d like.
So now I have acorn squash, regular pumpkins, white pumpkins, very strangely shaped and bright red pumpkins. I have acorn squash, some kind of yellow squash I don’t recognize. Maybe more even. And they are growing everywhere, even on the fences, producing improbable fruit and it’s exciting and encouraging.
There’s wisdom in leaving things alone, letting them be.
The neighbouring village had a temporary stoplight for a few weeks as road crews did some work on the bank of the river. Seeing as how the village is a sleepy, stop-signs-only kind of place, the change—I could get caught by a red light! Grrrr!—felt big time and sophisticated, especially since the light wasn’t around long enough to actually become annoying.
Stopped one day last week on my way home, I stared out over the fields rather than at the river. My mind was wandering around elsewhere, and so I only realized how beautiful the scene was as the signal flipped to green. There were cars behind me, but I grabbed my phone and snapped a quick pic before taking off.
The woods on Mont St. Hillaire have darkened and dulled to the hard green of late summer. They are ready now to crack apart into the bright yellow and brilliant orange of Fall. And so it is in the fields below.
The hay has been cut, the scrub tilled under, the manure thrown down. Dry corn rustles in the breeze, and here and there, lime has been spread across freshly turned soil, dusty and white, an early echo of late autumn snow.
In my neighbor’s garden, tomatoes dangle from the leafless stalks of wilted plants, gloriously fat and gloriously red. A pumpkin vine, clutching a trellis, props improbable fruit high into the air.
And the ducks fly overhead. And the river runs cool and clear.
The weeds in the garden have been growing, and after several days of hot sun, the tomatoes, cabbages and all the rest need a drink. So after mowing the grass, I pull out the young thistles and the worst of the clover and then hose everything down.
The shower spilling from the nozzle cools the air and coaxes a rainbow from hiding. A river feeds the spigot. Bright beads of water skip and race across waxy cauliflower leaves. I dip my hand in the pattering spray, wipe the back of my neck. Beneath it all, the cracked ground laps up its muddy brew.
The sensible beauty of this moment is astonishing.
It’s spring. The snow is melting away. The sky is clear. The air is warmer. Posting is slow, but last weekend, I started turning my garden and cleaned out the lilac hedge. The wild roses need to be moved soon or I’ll have to wait until next year.
The snow geese have started flying over too, wave after wave of them, picking their way together to wherever it is they are going. Some of them spent Sunday night in the corn fields out back.