Column: Wishing for a stern winter test

Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JONATHAN STABLEFORD

For the Valley News

Published: 02-09-2024 4:28 PM

I’m staring out my window into the deep woods, where the trees are swaying like a gospel choir and releasing clouds of last night’s snow. The temperature is barely above freezing, but what I see looks like winter. January brought us a little of everything: deer grazing on snowless slopes, wet snow, snow deep and dry as sifted flour, rain and then more rain, a deep and prolonged freeze, and now a hiatus.

When all the data is in, scientists will rank January in meteorological history, and confirm what we already know: it takes longer to go through a cord of wood than it used to. February mmight be colder and snowier than January, but the chances we will remember 2024 like 1969 or 1978 seem remote. Climate change is real and dire, but there is something else going on in my psyche when I look through the trees and long for more snow.

It wasn’t until well after Christmas that my wife and I were able get out on our snowshoes. There is something indescribable about the worthy exhaustion of making fresh trails on snowshoes into a remote woods. Call it ethereal joy, this transit impossible in the other three seasons, down deep ravines and over boulders and ledges without the worry of ticks or the annoyance of mosquitoes, and I’m greedy for a full winter of it.

In the midst of our January cold snap I overheard a conversations between Vermonters at our local general store:

Person 1: “Cold this morning.”

Person 2: “About time. Minus 4 when I opened the door.”

Person 1: “Remember when it wouldn’t get above zero for 2 weeks at a time?”

Person 2: (a thoughtful nod)

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In another season their conversation would be about rain or a brisk northwest wind, but their words would have none of the nostalgia for harder times when everyone was tougher and somehow managed. There was no swagger to their conversation about cold weather, just perspective and humble acceptance. Maybe a note of wisdom.

I should be careful about what I wish for. I remember the frustration of dry summers not so long ago when springs and shallow wells went dry and fields and lawns turned brown. But I also remember Irene and last summer’s floods; so when I say I want more snow, I don’t mean blizzards that paralyze and kill. I have an image from 1978 lodged in my brain: a phone booth on the campus where I taught, filled to the ceiling with drifting snow. All I’m asking for is a real winter, a steady regimen of predictable snow and fresh animal tracks crisscrossing mine. I want snow in the woods when the redwing blackbirds arrive to announce spring. I want to hear the song of tree frogs at the end of day the way Robert Frost imagined in his poem “Hyla Brook”: “Like ghost(s) of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow.”

Beyond nostalgia, beyond the aesthetic, there is something else in my wish for a real winter. I want a high standard to measure myself against. In a stage of my life where there is so much diminishment, winter is a test I can still pass. It requires only patience, time and the incalculable blessing of good health. Now that I’m retired, most of my deadlines are self-imposed, and a snowstorm is rarely a hardship, even when it means miles of plowing with my truck and plenty of shoveling around the house. If I had a daily commute on top of these duties, I’d feel differently; but to me, enduring a hard winter feels like completing a marathon. Keeping a path open to the woodpile might put me on the stand for a medal.

When I was younger, I measured my life in different ways. Winter cut into my freedom, and every day I longed for spring. If it hadn’t been for hockey, I would have traded the last decade of my life for 30 years without winters. When I was young and strong, I never stopped to imagine what it would be like to see all the empty spaces left by people who have died. Now I spend a lot of my time looking back over my life, surprisingly, with more wonder than longing. I’m grateful for a life with distinct stages, and from the one where I sit now, wishing a winter away feels wasteful.

Experience has a way of changing the rules. If I live long enough, I may look back on these words with amusement. But for now, I want more winter, more endurable hardship, and with it more of winter’s pristine beauty. The two go together more than we admit in our complaining culture, and in their delicate balance lies a quality of life anyone can afford.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.