Beyond the Bite of Winter
The cold air bites at me as it streams around the corner of the house, and I think for the first time this year of finding a really big muffler to wrap neck and face in. The decking on the side porch complains loudly as I walk across it, carrying water to the cows. Creak, groan, creak, groan.
Going down the path to the barn I look out across the valley at lights maybe three miles away glowing white and yellow, green and blue, at the corner out at the highway and at farms down the valley. They are always there, except when it is snowing hard. Usually in the summer they have a friendly softness to them, but tonight they are only points of sharp light with diamond edges, slicing through the snapping air.
Only a hundred yards or so separates house and barn. From the porch down to the big poplar trees the path twists and turns so as to avoid the worst of the drifts piled up in the last storm, snaking down beside the house as if reluctant to go too far from warmth and light. Come a storm or high wind and the path disappears like a camel track in the desert only to be re-invented in more-or-less the same place when the storm is over or the wind has dropped. The present path has lasted for several weeks, and beneath my feet the snow, its rough edges worn down from many trips across it until it is no more than a jumble sale of cast-offs, sounds rubbery as I walk and shifts unpredictably on the ice beneath it, treacherous to the unwary step.
Overhead the sky is completely clear. The earth lies open to the black emptiness above it, its heat a raging furnace, in comparison to the chill of outer space, even when to my poor ears and nose the air bites with bitter cold. Moving away from the warm yellow light shining on the snow from the kitchen windows and trudging deeper into the dark, I am suddenly struck with a sense of tremendous loneliness.
On a night like this the earth's heat flows unhindered upward, up through this cozy soup of atmosphere we live in, up past thin air like that at the top of Mount Everest, still up past where the highest cirrus clouds can survive, into that strange region of the aurora borealis, where it is blown away at last by the great wind of particles streaming past us off the sun into the blackness and emptiness of space. It seems cold comfort that that space, for all its emptiness, still holds a shred of hominess, lying as it does within the circle of the inner planets - Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars - around a cozy star, and moving with it as part of one of the spiral arms of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.
But all that heat this earth respires into the void has no more effect on the almost absolute zero even of nearby space than the heat escaping from our kitchen had on the cold of our dooryard as I opened the door to go out and closed it quickly behind me.
I shiver as I walk along and the shiver is only partly the instinctive response of warm blood to cold air. The strangeness of all this tangle of things we call life and earth and home strikes more deeply on a dark winter night, I think.
A few months from now, when the grass and the flowers of our Canadian spring almost explode from the ground, and the air, filled with birds singing their strange sweet songs, seems to enfold us and all things living in a blanket woven from many threads into a seamless tissue, then, I think, it will be easy to be alive. Then, there will be no sense of boundary. Life then flows on, and our life flows with all life, and life is all in all.
But on this evening in the deep of winter when the wind blows coldly through the bare branches of the poplars above me and the sky is so clear it seems space has swallowed up the sky, life seems a queer thing, a chance occurrence, the exception rather than the rule, and the shiver is partly a shiver of loneliness, of the tiny spark in an ocean of cold.
I turn, just above the trees, to cross the driveway above the chicken house, and as I come out from under the trees into the clear air I look up into the chilly blackness above the valley. Who can imagine such emptiness? Am I looking out or am I looking in? And then, suddenly, it happens.
There above me a familiar figure, a pattern in the void, draws my eye. Looking out or looking in, I wonder as emptiness organizes itself, ceases to be emptiness, links me to a home whose dooryard is all time and the starry heavens too.
Some star map I saw as a child dressed Orion in Roman garb, with short skirt, his left arm holding a lion skin as a kind of shield, a sword hanging from the stars of his belt, a mighty club upraised against the bull who bears down on him from above. Now I just see the pattern of stars and above him to the southwest the V of the head of Taurus, the Bull. And then, below him, to the southeast, I recognize Sirius, the dog-star, the shining eye of Canis Major, Orion's faithful companion.
Between the chicken-house and the barn I pause. There in the sky is all the glory of the starry heavens, shining as only they can when the air is cold and clear. Such a collection of wonders! A sense of oneness with others like myself who down the ages have looked into the night sky warms me as I see and recognize, besides Orion, other now-familiar presences twinkling against the black. There is Procyon, the other dog-star, there Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins, there bright Capella, there the Pleiades, the seven sisters, daughters of the Greek god Atlas and Pleione his wife, and below them this winter, moving past them now, the unwinking stare of reddish Mars, god of war.
It is still bitterly cold and the wind stings tears from my eyes. Even in gloves my fingers are smarting with cold from grasping the handles of the water-buckets. As I turn to finish my path I wonder at the curious joy this chilly night has brought me.
I reach the door to the barn and go in to that smaller dark. With a flip of a switch the dark flees away and blank emptiness becomes a familiar place. Thomas Not-a-Tom meets me as usual, purring. The other cats begin to appear: Cally, Spitz, Lopsie, Queenie. Anka, the little heifer, sticks her nose over the top of her stall in greeting. From the other end of the floor comes the sound of clashing stanchions as Maggie and John the steer rise in expectation.
"Hello, Maggie," I say to my cow as I put a bucket of water in front of her and go to do the same for John. Going back to the walkway, I open the big door behind John, take the shovel and begin to muck out.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.