All of the days with eves before them are behind us now for another year. The grand themes rebirth and genial carnality have come and gone like a chinook wind, bringing a familiar end-of-year thaw to body and spirit. Now the everyday returns and with it the ordinary kind of week in which Friday doesn't turn into Sunday and Saturday into Sunday as it has for two weeks running. It's time for a week in which each morning throws off a magnetic field all its own, when it's no trick telling Tuesday from Wednesday just by the sound of the alarm clock or the mood of your spouse.
With the everyday, winter comes at last to the new year. In the country it isn't necessarily snowfall or the sudden drop in temperature that marks the return of winter. It's the sound of the plow-guy unless you happen to be the plow-guy clearing the driveway well after dark, when the dogs are already asleep, too tired from an afternoon of running around a snowy field to rise and bark at the scraping and banging outside. In the time it takes to wonder what the racket is, I remember. It was last winter's sound, and now it's this winter's too. It seems surprising that the plow-guy even recalls where I live and that such a flimsy agreement a couple of words and a nod over a rolled- down pickup window could have such presumptive force. But that's the nature of the country, where lifelong service contracts are formed in an instant and attach to the property, not the person, as newcomers discover to their interest. Getting out of those contracts is like getting out of winter. Better just to move.
Winter's own presumptive force made itself plain recently, with rain upon snow followed by snow upon ice late into the darkness. The next morning my footsteps to the barn through the slush the night before had been preserved with remarkable sharpness - each one a life mask of my boot sole, the splash frozen in midair as if it were a Harold Edgerton photo. In the sunshine, snow slid off the metal barn roof with a hiss, and the horses skittered out from the run-in shed, taking pleasure as they always do in a momentary fright. In a single night they've learned how to pick their way over ice again. The roads are suddenly full of the overtentative and the overbold, for at night the cold, clean blacktop looks like hardpacked snow, and sometimes it actually is. Other seasons come abruptly but ask so little when they do. Winter is the only one that has to be relearned.
Somehow it seems appropriate that the year should have ended with a winter storm worth remembering, a walloping northeaster drawing snow down in heaps from a solid ceiling of clouds. This was the kind of storm preceded most richly by anticipation, by the heraldry of radar and rumor, bringing in advance a seasonal glibness to almost everyone in its probable path everyone, that is, who doesn't have to travel. On Saturday morning the weather drew people to their windows again and again to see how fast the snow was falling, then to see if the fire hydrant had disappeared, then to worry whether the plows were coming. And as always when a storm of this dimension crosses the Northeast, what it brings in greatest abundance is a muffled hush, the sound of nothing doing.
A winter storm is episodic by nature, whether it marches on an arctic track out of the west or rides upward along the coast from the south, as this one did, congealing as it comes. It's been a long time since the last episode of this magnitude, and it was strangely reassuring, if only as a reminder of what true winter really means, since winter is now a pale, warm shadow of its ancestral self. Many seeds require a period of cold, called stratification, before they'll germinate. Thanks to this storm, residents of the Northeast can consider themselves properly stratified.
In the country the storm meant a chance, when the gusts were strongest, to pretend that we'd been shifted northward in latitude to the shores of Baffin Bay, or backward in time to the middle of the last glaciation, when ice sheets rumbled southward across Canada. The snow skidded around the compass with the wind, and though the storm never reached the blizzard conditions forecasters predicted, it was strong enough at times to blot out the dark edge of the forest, to erase stone walls, to weigh down the hemlocks, giving them a more pendulous motion than they usually have. The falling and blowing snow stole color right out of the air, turning a cardinal in a mock-orange bush into an indistinct rose-gray blob. By nightfall the snow in the fields was fox-deep.
This is a complete excerpt of the chapter entitled 'January' from The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Copyright 2003 © by Verlyn Klinkenborg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Co.
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