Zero Degrees

December 1, 2006 at 12:46 pm (Uncategorized)

There’s nothing quite as bracing as winter in Montana. For most of the week, the high temperatures hovered around zero or the single digits. When it hit twenty yesterday, it felt positively balmy. Or so Jay said. I wouldn’t know because I’ve been stuck in bed, sick. My only interaction with the weather has been watching the wind through our bedroom windows, and hearing the heat running constantly, trying to keep our drafty house warm.

I love winter. I know plenty of people who have moved to Montana because of all the delights the summers here bring: daylight until nearly ten o’clock at night; hiking and mountain biking trails wending out their back doors; rivers chock-full of fish and ready to be kayaked or simply floated in an intertube; almost zero humidity so even the hottest days are (just about) bearable.

All well and good, but winter is what drew me here. I lived in California for several years before we came to Montana, and I was sick to death of nice weather. There’s only so many days of perfectly blue skies and perfectly temperate weather I could take. I felt like I was choking on the routinized perfection of it. It felt like the earth had visited a Hollywood plastic surgeon and gotten all the extraneous cold and gloomy days snipped off.

For me, winter is when the world bares its soul. The foliage falls to the ground and you see the outline of things as they really are. The skeletal trees show their shape, and the line between earth and sky that seemed so pronounced in summer now blurs with the first snow. Where exactly does the white and grey ground blend into the white and grey sky?

I find that winter anchors me to the earth in a way summer never will. You notice the bite of the air, the scouring of the wind, the very presence of an atmosphere that is greater and more powerful than we are. There is much less of a chance you’ll disregard the sky and the wind in winter. Five minutes in Montana cold is a humbling experience. The wind sucks your breath out of your mouth and lungs and carries it away; the wind chaps your face, your hands, any bit of you left exposed to it. Your glasses freeze to your face, and the passage of air through your nose feels almost acidic there is so much bite to it. With every footprint squeaking against the frigid snow, you cannot move silently against the earth.

Maybe I love winter so much because I spent part of my childhood in northern places. When I was very young, my family lived in Norway. I have few specific memories of my time there, but maybe the cold got into my blood and into my soul. Later, we lived for four years in upstate New York, just a short distance from the Canadian border. Some of my fondest memories are of cross-country skiing in the dairy farmer’s empty field down the road, and of returning to shake hunks of ice from my hat onto our pot-bellied woodstove and watching them sizzle and evaporate.

Winter is a time of withdrawing from what is frivolous and unessential. Everything living goes underground and takes stock. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear the rustling of the plants and the animals, the bugs and the birds, as they move beneath the crust of the snow, gathering up enough strength to re-emerge come spring.

I hate being bed-bound during our first cold snap. By the time I have recovered from my current bout of sinus infection and bronchitis, it will be above freezing — or so says the weather forecast. I feel like I have missed a chance to scrub off a layer of the year’s grime and dirt by playing in the arctic wind and snow. I want to get up and take Andrew outside and teach him how to make a snowman, how to fall into the snow so that you can make a snow angel with minimal smudging, how to dig down beneath the frozen crust of the snow to find the fresh powder that is good for eating.

But, I suppose that, like the small animals that retreat below ground with the onset of cold, I don’t have much choice in determining when I too must hibernate, when I must strip down to what is essential. It isn’t the snow and the bitter bite of the wind that take me down; it is sickness. But there is plenty of winter in that, as well. And who knows what will emerge from what the sarcoidosis has laid bare.

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