January 2014 came to the North Country.
And, just like that, just – as it so happens – like all of the previous January’s of my experience before it, this January, too, is almost gone. January, February, March…those, to me, always seem to be the swiftest months; everything’s new – new year, new calendar, new snow, and then you blink and it’s nearly gone.
But as we are still (for the very brief time being) in January, now is the time (ready or not) for the January post of the “North Country Almanac” mini-series I’ve been attempting as a spin-off of Aldo Leopold’s much more worthy A Sand County Almanac. I’m afraid my efforts to this end have grown somewhat half-hearted, or at least less hearty, as of late. But perhaps I can write it off (ha) as, in itself, part of the testament to what this season is like in my neck of the woods: things get colder, much colder, and consequently slower, and so animals and bipeds of all kinds that are left, having resisted or not felt the urge to migrate, are now either combating, or else submitting to, the other great colder season impulse: that of hibernation. For myself, I’ve inclined more towards the latter category this month. The sub-zero temp’s all throughout this week haven’t helped to liven things up, either. (Watertown, NY, near my home, had the lowest recorded national temperature for this past week at 37 below. Juneau, AK was somewhere around a balmy 42. And speaking of Alaska…)
This summer, just a few hours before I was scheduled to board a plane which would return me to the Lower 48 after a summer’s sojourn in Alaska, I sat with two dear cousins in the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. We listened as one of the presenters explained how native tribes use(d) dances to help pass the long hours of cold and dark that make up Arctic winters. Often, the young man explained, these dances incorporate(d) chiefly hand movements and drums, due to the limited space inside the shelters. I was intrigued. Remembering the presentation now, in my own sub-arctic but still frigid clime, I wish (not for the first time) for a community like that for myself, for dances and closely-packed bodies squeezed up tightly against one another and lining the sides of our shelters as we sing and dance – if only with our hands – to fight boredom together, and to compensate for Old Man Winter’s dark, chilly, and benumbing presence just outside our walls. Instead, more often than not, we turn to television programs, constant through winter and summer, to numb ourselves further to the numbness growing both outside and within us. Noise and inertia, rather than music and dance, too often line the walls and warm the air of our winter shelters.
But then there are the stars. The stars never fail to take my breath away with their frosty beauty, always at unexpected moments. Last night, I tugged gently at the old string attached to the chain of the lamp by which I had been reading Anna Karenina, glanced unthinkingly out the window, and was totally caught off guard at the spectacular sight in the night sky. Stars twinkled gently against a deep bluish-black field. They, too, have special dances for winter; Orion was just stepping his way into the field of vision afforded by my window, making his entrance from its western edge. I craned my neck, pressing my forehead against cold glass, to get a better view of the bright warrior. But other stars beckoned for my notice, too, and my eyes roved between one and the other, never ceasing to wonder, never ceasing to drink in the milky nourishment. Awe came gently to my side, slipped beneath the covers, and snuggled down beside me; we were quiet together, not speaking anything, like two old friends from childhood who are comfortable with one another’s silence, and warmed inside and out by their steady, familiar companionship.
(Other suitable companions have quietly kept me company this January, including Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales, which I thought quite appropriate to read in this month. They’re excellent and enchanting stories.)
So I fell asleep beside Awe, lullabied by the stars, and awoke to another unexpected wonder. Upon first waking, I glanced casually out of my window once more; my spirit gasped within me as I caught sight of pinkish-yellow colors still lingering on the horizon from where light had just broken out of the detritus of a gray sky and was growing slowly into another winter day.
I could almost believe that I was visited by a messenger this morning, as in Czeslaw Milosz’s “On Angels,” drawing near and waking me with those same words as in the closing lines of the poem:
Day draws near,
Do what you can.
As, in fact, I was.
~The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world…~ Psalm 19:1-4