After last night’s blizzard, the cement Chinese scholar—who meditates on a makeshift pedestal in our garden’s southwest corner—has suffered a storm-change into something rich and strange. Atop his modest Buddhist curls, he now wears a proud bishop’s miter of snow; a priestly white stole adorns his sloping shoulders. Glimpsed through a Magnolia grandiflora’s evergreen foliage, almost black, which partly blocks his path, he smiles slightly—despite his recent spiritual confusion—and floats above the sparkling virgin drifts.
Two cardinals glisten like drops of fresh blood on the low, snow-capped wall.
When I take a shovel and cut a path to the garden shed to fetch a bag each of millet and sunflower seeds, a hundred hungry eyes watch me from the trees. The feeders have been empty for twenty-four hours, the temperature hovering near zero. Then, a cranky “Tsk, Tsk, Tsk!” cracks the snow-choked silence. A black-capped chickadee? All at once, I feel cold and hot, chastened and needed, moved to laughter and tears.
About the Magnolia grandiflora, earlier, I’d also meant to say that each leaf is furred underneath with a bronze indumentum…
You in your shirtsleeves in the living room, chatting on the phone. Me, outside, bundled up like Nanook of the North, with my breath crystallizing in the inhospitable air. Nothing separates us, really, except steel casements and double-paned glass. Yet, for an instant, I fear we stand in utterly opposing worlds, indoors and out, as distant as lovers menaced by the legendary obstacles the gods concoct: family conflict, jealousy, war, time… You glance up at me and smile as you talk, and we’re twenty yards apart again, with all my mythical losses overcome and imaginary handicaps restored.
Next morning, we find a cat’s footprints on the kitchen walk. Each paw- hollow, already filling with wind-drift, suggests an ideograph on ancient rice paper, fading in the sun.
Who counts sheep when they can’t sleep? For me, insomnia is an affliction, like shingles, or an angry finger jabbing at my face. My inner devil’s advocate—with his jet-black goatee, ivory skin, and piercing, ice-blue eyes—will start to itemize a lifetime’s worth of fuck ups and missed chances. The night of the storm, exhausted by self-indictment, I heard the wind sigh bitterly in the white oak by our house, making the complaints I’d filed against myself sound moot. A judge’s gavel banged on bone; the D.A. in my head agreed to drop his case. Outside, the weather moaned and hissed as I drifted off near 3 AM.
Barbara’s black cat is the one that roams our yard, hunting for sparrows with a bell on her collar. Hope springs eternal in the feline breast.
Some say Eskimos have fifty words for snow; others say they don’t. The student of the winter garden—a savage redaction of summer’s chatter to roots and first causes—might take a different tack. For instance: “Who are the Eskimo?” “Do they all speak the same language?” “Define ‘word’.” “What is this miraculous frozen transience that we call ‘snow’”?
There can be a poetry of fact. In 1988, while researching snow for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Nancy Knight was excited to discover two snowflakes of the hollow column variety that were “twins”—contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that no two snowflakes look alike. Later, however, she clarified that her twins were, with near certainty, distinct at the atomic level.
Out front, the witch hazel raises her knobby pewter arms, and tiny orange flowerets unfurl in the thaw.
Winter makes us brood on death. Or worse. Especially when the stars twinkle heartlessly in the sub-zero sky. Before bed, I read about the possible loss of our “collective afterlife”—the human posterity—in two cosmic doomsday scenarios. Imagine, the writer asks, that you live a normal span and face the easiest of deaths from natural causes while knowing that a giant asteroid will obliterate the earth just one day later. Or pretend a virus makes the human race infertile and, after all adults have died, no children will replace them. Are these possibilities more terrifying than your own personal extinction? Do they increase despair? I turn off the bedside lamp and shiver underneath my comforter.
“O sweet and dauntless harbinger of spring,” I sing to a tune I’ve heard somewhere before, “when will you ever sprout, bloom, or alight?” It’s March, the deadest month of the year. I watch a squirrel hobble up our yew. A raw, red gash bisects his left haunch. A bite from the stub-tailed squirrel next door? A fall? Still, he leaps onto our Norway maple ‘Crimson King’ and spirals deftly up the trunk.