Visions in the Hard Season
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.
The Sonnets to Orpheus
Rainier Maria Rilke
(Stephen Mitchell translation)
In February, my soul is bent back to its tolerable limits. Seed heads rattle beneath my hands and I hold the long season against them. The buds of the hickory tree, when rubbed, when blown upon and fidgeted with, do absolutely nothing, much to my consternation. They will burst in their own good time. Wishing does nothing to budscale or rootlet, it does nothing to the river or the clock, to the motions of the sun.
In February, I catch myself staring into the trees, watching for horizontal movement, for any willfulness against gravity. Stillness is the status quo. The eye locks onto the passing chickadee, the titmice. We are waiting for them to disband. The cardinals have moved to the tops of the trees and give us their “chew chew chew” song as if they know what they are talking about. The Fish Crows bleat through the tops of their beaks, telling brief secrets that I wish I could follow.
In February we do battle with the waste and stalks of last winter’s flowers. My wife stoops and pulls at the rattling vines. The Lemon Grass in my hands still smells like cut lemons even after it has gone to its husks and sleeves. The grass stains my fingers and I fold my hands around my nose like a mask to inhale this sweet smell over and over. I dig down deeper to look for any new growth, to find this year's new lemon tips. The tall dead spires of the Phlox nearby make my wife pause. They have an esthetic that lingers. We both look. She cocks her head; she lets them be.
Today, I find a jumping spider pulling herself across the expanse of our porch. It is a cold and gray plain to her, the unnatural rink that will not skate. She moves in ratchety motions like she is stalking, but this is not stalking. This is cold. She has been unroofed from her potted plantlife. She is looking for a new haven. She crawls like she has been Sam Peckinpawed, like spiders have bones, like there is winter in her weary knees. I lift her with a card of paper and admire her white and black markings, her green fang sheaths. I walk down the steps to the cedar bush and deposit her there. For this spider, it is a vast tree in the sunshine; for me, it is a shrub. She slowly walks down the branch toward the heart of the tree.
In February, the insects are mostly imagined. A few flies turn up from God knows where. A House Fly, Musca domestica, stares at me from a countertop. He seems sluggish. Yellow Jackets erupt from their hidings in the bark and buzz about for hours or a day. They know not when to make their paper homes. They need some sign. Watching for one myself, I jump and turn suddenly toward the leaves that drop unexpectedly from their late holds and tangles. I turn them into butterflies with poor flight skills—the downward brushfoot, the crashing satyr, the suicidal slant of some miracle winter duskywing. But they are just desperate flinches in my visual cortex, set off by the skeletons of last year’s burnout, the spent fuel processors of the hibernating oaks, the suncells gone brown and neutral. After these leaves have fallen, sometimes, I walk over and touch them anyway.
I go to the river. The carpet in the trees there is nearly pure cottonwood leaf—light browns, overlapping stars. The whole winter landscape is browns and blacks, creams and grays except where the horsetails grow. I gravitate there. There it is green. Vines and tangles stretch between the tree trunks, they shroud the undergrowth like pale mesh, and beneath these I find the Equisetum field. Animal paths run between the bent stalks. I can see the river from where I stand among the cottonwoods. The barges talk and honk with layers of echo along the far shore. One barge moves in that weighty motion of these slow boats, the inertial battle. It is loaded with gray stone. Where is the world so needy of gray stone?
Noah was six hundred years old when God came to him about a boat. Six hundred years! But, of course, there was no turning Him down. No excuses. The Bible says, “Noah walked with God.” And he was told to build a boat out of gopher wood. It was to be 450 feet long, three decks high, covered inside and out with pitch. (These barges that pass me on the river look about 200 feet long or so.) He was to stock it with the whole earth's natural living treasures. And Noah was to fill any spare room in the vessel with food for all the critters he was charged to carry. Well, actually, he was told twice in the pages of Genesis what exactly to put in the hold of the boat. And in the second version he is asked to give special treatment to the birds. He is to take fourteen of each kind of bird. And only two of the “unclean” animals. Cleanliness defined by suitability for sacrifice, not by dirty feet. So his load would include only two lions and two bears but he had to round up fourteen Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
A Pileated Woodpecker rings out in the trees near the river. Snow Geese go over with their voices, invisible otherwise. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker lands right above my head as I stoop down to finger the horsetail tops. I study the light around the plants. I press the dead leaves below them and small brown spiders scatter everywhere. They appear to be young Wolf Spiders, though I can’t be sure. The leaves seem endlessly rich with them. Apparently they overwinter in the complex insulation of the leafbed and now the sixty degree heat has inspired them to sudden activity. I lift one spiderlet onto a limb and we have an eye to eye event.
The light around me is golden and cream. It stops me. I don’t understand such light in February. But then it is a puzzling month. A month that can break me if it turns its cold shoulders too often. If it taunts me with warm days and spiders and then takes them away, it can bruise.
In February, the question mark—is when? When will the spring break true? What is the marker that will let me sigh and move on? Have I no wisdom after forty years study and experience? Sadly, I cannot feel the equinox. The crossing of those special earthly lines is, I suppose, the actual event, the solar moment, but I have no sense for this. The spring itself seems to blend and to stall, to duck in and out. I get mixed up. I lose my way. The light in the trees is lovely but I am still cold.
“Every kind of creeping thing on earth.” This is what Noah was to bring on board the ark. I assume this meant insects as well as hairy beasts. And when I start thinking of the inside of Noah’s storm-tossed boat I get dizzy. It is a dark dreamplace: fourteen ostriches, fourteen emus, two of each bee and wasp, two of every serpent. And remember it was not only Noah hunkered inside but also his wife and his three sons and their wives. These must have been stolid women. Oh the density of the life inside and so little light to see them through those weeks and weeks of rain and cloud. Where to put your foot or your hand? What is that in my hair? It is too much. In the great required menagerie, I think we must allow for some sort of post-diluvian evolution. Cut down the numbers. Surely, it could not hold them all. We must stretch our dates and our mythology. Fourteen of each bird on board when there are now at least 9000 bird species—over a hundred thousand birds on board? Let us not count up the beetles and the spiders. And why did Noah need to carry the gulls and the oceangoing ducks? Let's lessen his load with some tempered feasibility.
Across the field of hay bales some Orange Sulphurs fly and I run after them. They are fresh, born after winter. At one point, right in front of me, they do a dance of mating, a flutter of green over orange. I almost cheer. I try to take them into my lens or my hand. But they are young and skittish; I am the first living giant they have seen. More geese go over and I try and pace out 450 feet of boat on the open field. The hay bale I started from looks very far away. Three stories up from here to there, it is a damn big boat. But still.
Along the shore of the river I can still see the barge of stones going away into silver mirage, into heat shimmers. The sand is studded with bleached shells. It always is in this place. Dog prints and raccoon prints move about with their random recent histories—all those generations of mammal out of the boat. The world nearby seems blown with feathers. I find them in the sand. I find them fluttering atop a cocklebur plant. The water is wide. The gulls wing over and squawk.
“And the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open.” The rains came for forty days and forty nights. The ark rose up; the ark drifted and banked—antelope and leopard, porcupine and leech, four men and four women. Five weeks of dark rain is enough, quite enough, but it took ten months for the waters to recede. This is the time that makes my head shake. The banging of lightning in my head, the sickening roil and tilt, roil and tilt until madness was near. Oh, how I would have wanted out of that boat.
On the sand I find the trackings of a beaver. Long foot, pointed heel, they do love this stretch of river. I’ve followed them here before, their toothy sticks lay about me now. Surely this was one creature that had no trouble with finding food on the long journey. They could just leisurely eat the inside of the boat. As long as they could stand the taste of pitch and didn’t get caught.
In February, the Question Mark is here, a butterfly—it always pleases me. Beyond the horsetails, I find three that zing over my head and then land to spread their orange wings in the sun. They will not let me approach. Knowing things, all eyeball and twitch, they have stayed the winter creviced or caved somewhere, they don’t want to perish now when they are so close, so close. They flinch and wheel as though I might eat them. Oh, I think, at all the butterflies inside the ark. They must have clung to the walls with the bats and the swifts, stumbled over the great wallpaper of beetles.
Waiting for a passing train earlier in the week, I wanted to jump a car, take it west. But I held my ground and watched several more traincars pass with the words “Do Not Hump,” stamped on the end of the car. It was official writing, a true warning and not some random graffiti. My eyes were playing tricks I thought. And it must be “do not jump.” But no, more cars went by and by and I leaned to see that they did indeed say “Do Not Hump.” And I laughed to think it was some warning to all of us bystanders not to start the true activities of spring too early. I could see a finger shaking at me with such a message. Of course, it meant not to overfill these coal cars with a visible mound of black heap. But still I laughed.
The river rolls by. It is a long way to the sea. This same thought always comes to me at this very same spot on the river. Odd. I try and capture the shadows I see on the sand with just the right light and angle of my lens, I adjust the mechanical eye. We see: plant and shadow, a bird feather of gray and blue. I tell you this now descriptively and it does not seem good enough. It is a vagary. The world cannot be pocketed and taken home so easily. The world cannot be worded back into light. Looking up, the present light still seems golden somehow even far outside those ancient cottonwood trees. The white gulls shine, all lined up on the rocks. Six geese play in a pool of rippled glass near the shoreline as they keep a close eye on me. They murmur the goosey murmur—bird rumors, avian gossip. Watch him, they say, he knows not where he goes. The barge, downriver, is now completely gone.
When Noah was back on solid land almost the first thing he did was plant a vineyard. He had no idea. He drank his harvest and got drunk. He fell asleep naked in his tent. It is the moment I feel closest to Noah—drunk at the age of twenty-four score. He lived 350 more years and repopulated the earth with his sons. The last of the pre-diluvian men, men afterwards were not allowed to live as long. (This is no curse, I think. Wait, yes, this is a curse. No wait.) I find that each year the holdout for spring is more difficult. I have more signs and less time. I never noticed spiders in the leaf litter before. I want the wasps, I want the flies unleashed. I need the kinglets to go away.
If I were Noah I would still have over 900 springs to wait for. Over 900 summers to live inside. The schizophrenic prayer: give me 900 springs, I’ll take 900 winters. I see the ark cracking hard ashore onto the mountains after so much time adrift, breaking open like an egg and crowding the whole landscape with its escapees—a pitch-painted womb to rescue the world from nothingness, from God’s regret. I would fall to my knees on the high ridge and clean out all the insects from my long hair. Surely there would be bees up my sleeves, worms in my socks. What a swirl of living things I would see ganging way down the valley and gone, throwing themselves at the world. It is the oddest of dreams. It is a dark trap and then a release. It is the urge for the light unleashed. It is the least lonely of darknesses, battered, tossed, so teaming with life, and then the whole world is open and washed clean and waiting and we are all on our own once more—inside the mountains, beside the massive sea.
Winter would never be an obstacle again.