Down East 2013 ©
Just Before Snow
Susan Hand Shetterly
This fall I watched from the kitchen window as a chipmunk in my field accelerated into high gear, frantically shoving every seed it could fit into its cheek pouches, dashing back and forth to its underground granary, building up a food supply before its winter sleep. There’s no sign of it now. I imagine it is tucked nose to tail in some cup-like den, or waking groggily to wander into the granary to pick up a few of those sunflower seeds I put out by the handful.
Its work is done.
I’m the one who’s frantic now.
I rush from one chaos to another, overwhelmed by the thought of coming snow. The wild clematis, berserk with brittle shoots, needs a major cutback. I must spread the mulch over the garden paths. The compost pile has three burdock plants growing in it, as tall as I am, lush with burrs. The straw bales I bought to bed the garden down are too soggy with rain to lift. I’ll cut their bale string, carry them in sheaves, and spread them over the kitchen herbs, over the echinacea and catnip and lavender.
Then there’s the splintered mailbox and its post behind the woodshed along with the wheelbarrow that collapsed from too many firewood trips. I had been ignoring them both, but the leaves are off the hardwoods, and I spy them, along with two old busted red plastic gas cans, as the sun rises through the trees, and I start another day — of panic.
Part of this madness is a throwback to when my children were little. We lived in a house without electricity. Every fall we stacked and brought in firewood, split kindling, banked the house, harvested the last of the garden, put plastic over the windows, fitting it tightly with wooden laths, polished the globes on the kerosene lights, trimmed the wicks. I knew, just the way the chipmunk knows, that not getting these things done could mean trouble.
That was years ago, and yet it can sometimes feel like yesterday, when I went out at sunrise to gather the dry pine cones to mix with dry wood to start morning fires in the woodstove. I wrapped the lilacs, spread the mulch, trimmed the clematis, covered the firewood I haven’t had time to carry to the woodshed yet, brought in the rubber garden hose, and the rakes. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can fit the wheelbarrow and its seedy companions into the back of the car for a trip to the dump.
It’s midnight. A peculiar silence has woken me.
In the dark I step across the rug to the window.
Snow pours out of the sky, slanting across the field. From the kitchen light, I see it shawling into the branches of the pines. I hear it whisper against the window glass. Buoyant, thick, unremitting, and gorgeous, it is erasing all those undone chores. They’re gone. What were they, anyhow? I hardly remember.
Susan Hand Shetterly has been writing about wildlife and the wild world for three decades. Her most recent work is the collection of essays, Settled in the Wild.
When you were a kid, you read for hours on your family’s long red couch, motionless and unblinking. Reading felt like limbo — the Limbo, the Catholic one, a guilt-tinged suspension of the known world. “This house could catch fire,” sighed your exasperated mother, who believed in fresh air. “Someone could drop a bomb in here.” She once wrested a book from your hands, thrust her pointed finger as theatrically as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and exclaimed, “Out!”
You’d been reading Little Women or something like it, some hoop-skirt tome in which words like “reticule” shivered through your unformed self like half-heard promises. Thwarted and embittered, you rose from your stupor and swallowed your mother’s recommended dose of winter frolic, glumly shaping snowballs as you planned an adult life in which your reading habits would be not only permissible, but required.
In this imagined future, you frittered away your days on a chaise longue in the oaken library of your estate, firelight flickering upon the folds of the damask curtains. At your feet slumbered a sleek Siamese cat, and through the panes of your nine-foot french doors could be seen your handsome husband, straight and tall in the English dusk, sweeping fallen snow from the stone walks of your gardens. On the mahogany desk lay your handwritten manuscript and a quill pen. No sound but of pages turning and the occasional rustle of your dressing gown.
This was your vision; and lo, it came to pass.
Except for the estate. And the firelight and the dressing gown. And the nine-foot doors. And the English dusk and the desk and the damask. And the cat, who in real life is a tubby, toothless tabby about nine pounds shy of the Siamese prizewinner of your childhood dream. But you got the handsome husband — out there now, just after dawn, wind-whipped and shoveling your twenty feet of sidewalk, chatting with the neighbor about the forecast as you rise from your bed and put on your terry-cloth bathrobe.
You select from your not-oaken shelves a book in hardcover, one with hundreds of thin pages and an antique scent of dust. Half-hypnotized already, you come downstairs, pour some coffee, and settle in for the day, the open book a pleasant weight on your lap. From outside comes the muffled sound of machinery, of snow, of rising wind, of a car struggling down the street. The cat lays claim to the upholstered back of your chair. Somewhere in the city, plowmen are refilling their thermoses as the highway lights up with travel advisories.
Your own travel today will be no struggle at all. Languidly turning pages, you’ll take your customary snow-day journey, which follows a double path. The first takes you to a fictional town where ladies hide love notes in their reticules. The other — smooth and well plowed — winds back to childhood, where the girl on the long red couch can imagine, far into her future, a day exactly like this one.
Monica Wood is the author of several novels as well as the upcoming memoir When We Were the Kennedys about growing up in Mexico, Maine.
Sometimes before looking out my window I lay in bed half-expecting the hopeful absence of school buses pushing along Maine Street and then I heard the absence and I knew it was true: a snow day.
This will sound ungrateful, but that relief was then followed by some bitterness. My two best buddies, Sam and Nicky, didn’t have their driver’s licenses either. Up north, there were mountains and mountains overflowing with fresh powder from the night’s storm, but we, too old for snow forts and snowmen, too young to drive, were stuck in town for the day.
And so we went to Bullet Hill instead.
We lashed our skis and poles and boots to old frame packs then marched through the buried streets of our neighborhood, the windblown hospital parking lot, onto trails made vague by craning birches and weighted pine bows, through navy housing, past a sewage pond that stank all summer but became pretty under ice, across farmland and a blueberry field. Then, gazing silently upward, we unloaded our packs at the foot of Bullet Hill.
From top to bottom the run ran less than thirty yards. But it was steep. It took us an hour to gather then pile the sticks and stumps and branches, and using our skis like shovels, we covered the pile and packed it down until it felt firm and unmoving and nicely curved. Steaming from the work we booted up in our shirtsleeves, marched to the top with our skis over our shoulders.
Sam always went first. He had a natural capacity for speed and an unthinking bravery that made him the first to perform the flamboyant daffies and spread eagles and backscratchers that the neon-clad professionals did in ski videos, shot in exotic western ranges we would never ski.
The first jumps were always thrilling: to gain speed, to rise, to fly, to land and not fall. Sometimes we cheered for a good jump followed by a steady landing. But by noon as the sun fell and the snow stiffened, the jump steepened and hardened and the effect was like the feeling we got during summer when we dared to drop from the roof of Sam’s garage onto his cement driveway. When the sun set and the forest became unforgiving and purple and pale, we destroyed the jump and made a bonfire with the old sticks. No snowmobilers or girls or kids on sleds would taint what we, for a single day, had built for ourselves.
In following years we would drive hours to ski mountains and riding chair lifts laugh about our inferior days at Bullet Hill but spend the afternoon doing all the same jumps that we had practiced there. And though none of us ski much these days, I haven’t forgotten the long unspeaking walk home through quietly fading woods, through the freshly plowed streets of our lamp-lit winter neighborhood, shoulders sore from the weight on our backs, too tired to wish for better snow north.
Jaed Coffin is the author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and the forthcoming Roughhouse Friday.
My boys were born in Southern California, one on a sunny August morning, the other on an even sunnier January afternoon. For them, a “snow day” has historically meant that we were headed to some faraway mountain to ski. Perhaps this is why Griffin, 6, and Adrian, 4, reacted with the enthusiasm of escaped zoo monkeys when they woke up to the fat flakes drifting from the sky above our old house outside of Belfast.
Adrian, who had never seen it actually snow before, bolted outside in slippers and pajamas to catch snowflakes on his tongue as if they were spun from sugar. I let him play, since children don’t get as cold as mommies — probably some kind of evolutionary phenomenon that kept them alive back when people lived in caves.
Unfortunately, our one hundred year old green-and-white house sitting on a bluff overlooking Penobscot Bay is not much warmer than a cave when it’s snowing. It was built as a summerhouse and the wind gusts howling through its Gothic eaves and beating against the storm windows dissipate heat almost as fast as the ancient furnace in the basement can create it. If we wanted, say, a constant, comfortable sixty-five degrees, we would have to park an oil truck on our front lawn and keep the hose hooked up.
So why would anyone try to weather a Maine winter in a house that leaks heat like a great-granddaddy wearing Depends? The answer is that my family is new to the Pine Tree State’s legendary snow days and so any hardships they bring (like having to wear my long down coat and pink Bula ski hat inside) take on a storybook quality for us. When I catch my bundled-up reflection in an old, warped mirror, I think of Snow White, the Ice Princess, and Happily Ever After.
With the Edna Drinkwater Elementary School shut down, Griff and Adrian settled into a snow day routine: rolling around in the rapidly growing drifts, flinging snowballs like major league pitchers, and then rushing inside to warm up by the fire, shaking snow, water, mud, and bits of leftover autumn leaves to the floor like puppies. (Finally, this California native understands the value of a mudroom.)
That afternoon, the sky got darker. The wind ceased and the snowfall thickened, muffling the world outside our house until it seemed like time had stopped. Enchanted by the Currier and Ives picture outside my window, I pulled on my cranberry colored Bogs and stepped outside into a landscape transformed by an ordinary act of nature. When, I wondered, had I forgotten how perfect is every crystalline snowflake caught on an upturned palm?
There are many ways to relearn the wonder children see in a snow day and walking down a deserted lane, where branches bend with the weight of frozen water, is as good as any. Next to a nearby pond, where a small stone angel stands, arms outstretched to the wintery forest, I stopped. I looked at her, wings covered in a soft blanket of white, and felt completely charmed.
Suzanne Rico was the morning news anchor for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles for nearly a decade and is now a freelancer writer and author of the blog walkingpapers.wordpress.com
Meadow Rue Merrill
We would have been better off with a sleigh, or perhaps an old-fashioned buggy with runners rather than wheels. The snow — where passing trucks and boots had not beaten it into a slushy batter — was ankle deep, hardly a problem for me. In my shearling Uggs, I could easily cross the parking lot, in which I stood, to my house across the street. But I wasn’t worried for myself.
As vehicles spun past us on that Friday afternoon early last February, I worried for my seven-year-old daughter, Ruth. Moments before, I’d boarded her school bus, unbuckled the straps locking down her hefty, metal wheelchair, and pushed her into the snow, which was falling fast.
Despite my repeated requests, our school transportation company refused to drop Ruth off in front of our house, which sits on a busy street. Instead, they’d chosen this parking lot. In good weather, the arrangement worked fine, but in winter it meant dragging my daughter’s chair — with her in it — backward across the length of a basketball court.
“Ready?” I asked as fat flakes clung to my daughter’s curly eyelashes and melted on her warm, brown skin. Unable to speak, Ruth blinked up at me curiously as I turned her chair and hauled it through the watery sludge. The wheelchair skidded from side to side while I slipped and slogged across the street, narrowly avoiding a taxi. Finally reaching our driveway, I turned Ruth and pushed her up the remaining hundred-foot ramp to our door.
Inside, I wiped the melted snow from my daughter’s face and mopped the puddles her chair left on the bare linoleum. And then, I called William Shuttleworth, the superintendent of our school department. For five minutes, he listened to my frustration, which he followed with a long pause.
I readied myself for why the bus couldn’t stop at my house. Fire trucks and ambulances wouldn’t be able to get by. Drivers might become angry in the time it took to lower and raise the bus’ lift. Cars could slide into the bus in a storm. All reasons I’d heard before.
Instead, Mr. Shuttleworth said, “Monday morning I will make sure that bus stops at your door.”
And that was it. Problem solved. No arguing. No harsh words. No more dragging my daughter’s wheelchair through snow. I smiled triumphantly. Only on Monday, Ruth, who’d been born with cerebral palsy, wasn’t feeling well. That week I kept her home from school. And on Sunday, without warning, she died in her sleep.
That harsh morning our family gathered in the close comfort of our living room. Nieces and nephews huddled on the floor with our children. My husband talked quietly in a corner with his parents, but I sat frozen with grief and disbelief. And then the doorbell rang.
A man I’d never seen before, well dressed in a wool coat and gloves, stood on our front porch holding an aluminum pan.
“I’m Bill Shuttleworth,” he said, “and I want to extend my deepest sympathy to you and your family. Please accept this from my wife.”
He handed me the pan, the heat from it radiating like kindness.
Meadow Rue Merrill is a freelancer writer currently at work on a memoir about her daughter Ruth.
Sensation of Joy
The snow was blowing sideways, the temperature was in the single digits, the sky was clamped down like a lid of slate. So I took the dog out for a walk.
The hills behind our house are owned by several of my neighbors, and whose property ends where is a mystery to me, perhaps even to them. But it is a given that we use the area when we can, as we like. It is hundreds of acres, uninterrupted, which includes a bog, an apple orchard, abandoned sap buckets, and tapping spiles long ago permanently absorbed by maples. There is a vernal pond, several rock walls, a creek, a fox den, and a nearly even split of hardwoods and soft woods.
I bundled up with my warmest gear, strapped on my snow shoes, let the dog run free, and headed out: up the slight rise behind the house, through the Christmas tree plantation that outgrew my neighbor’s ability to sell them, over a rock wall and a single strand of rusted barbed wire, past the clearing at the top of the rise, then down into the trees.
The dog and I wandered, following whatever mysterious sense of destination and direction was at play that day. At the top of the hill the evergreens had been blasted by more than a foot of snow, their branches drooping with the weight of it, which fell so thickly still I was dizzy at the sight, as though I were trying to pass through a white, beaded curtain, but couldn’t.
The dog grew tired of fighting his way through the chest-high drifts and began trailing behind me, letting my snowshoes break trail, and at times stepping on the tips, making me stumble. The snow adhered to his fur, his face, and ears. We were both white; the world was white.
We entered a particularly dense patch of woods, where it wasn’t possible to easily pass between the trees. I stopped to choose a path — a branch shuddered and surrendered its burden of snow on my head.
Shocked, I shook off the snow, tried to claw it out of my collar and shirt, then out of my gloves. I saw anew the snow whipping past my face, the utter whiteness of the day, the inability to see more than a few feet, felt the biting cold. And to my surprise I thought, Who wouldn’t love this?
I was now wet and tired, and would be cold for a long time yet as I slogged back home through the deep snow. But a thought had come to me on the wind, it seemed — a sudden inspiration that this was a special moment, that it would be crazy not to love a moment like this.
Recently, I had taught an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Moose,” in a college class. Now these words from it appeared, spoken, as though part of the sound track of the day:
“Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?”
Michael Burke is the author of The Same River Twice, a memoir of his career as a whitewater river guide.