The idea of winter


January stretches thin in places, like a cotton ball unrolled, teased out to a flat gauze. Over the Alleghenies, clouds unravel and sunlight filters down on blued slopes. The sky spits snowflakes. On the paths through the woods, grass has died but moss flushes a hectic green-yellow.

Yesterday was spring–temperatures in the sixties, a sunshower of light and fine rain, a triple rainbow circling the place where the sun will rise at midsummer. We walked the paths in sweaters, no hats, no gloves. Today I bundle up and the cold cuts through me.

A season is perhaps not so much a thing as an idea; it comes and goes, with no sharp distinctions. Sometimes the winter cloudcover thins and spring pushes through. This morning, a clamor outside startled me from my desk to the front yard, where hundreds of black birds roiled and swarmed across the grass, festooned the trees like dark ornaments flung by the handfuls. They were so loud I could hear them inside with doors and windows shut. Outside, they were a cacophony, a tide of noise. They balked upward, swirled in smoky clouds, resettled in branches. Whether they were heading north or south, I do not know. Where do birds fly at this time of year?

Yesterday was warm, almost balmy. Today the temperature is plummeting. Winter is an absentminded giant, sometimes letting us almost slip through its fingers, remembering to catch us just as we begin to drop free. This weekend, forecasts call for inches of snow. Bright green chickweed splashes in great swaths across the forest floor, along the edges of the path. The faerie houses in the woods tilt and tumble–you cannot build a faerie house with metal (especially iron of course), and you must build it only with what is to hand, else it will remain uninhabited. You tilt curved planks of bark against stick and stone and wait, and then put them back together again after a high wind, after a heavy rain, after a migration of deer, after the Wild Hunt comes shrieking down the path, hooves just off the ground, riding the currents of wind and wild moonlight.

These woods are full of magic. It is a sleeping kind of magic, grazed thin by generations of cattle whose bones mulch the soil in a massive pit a mile or so from here. The cattle are gone now. The farmer is gone. But magic is fey and skittish sometimes–wild woods magic–and it is slowly sifting back. It peers at you from the boles of oaks and locusts. It is a winter kind of magic, a magic biding its time. No one knows what lies beneath the pile of stones along the north fenceline.

The air is filling now with snowflakes reluctant to fall. They swerve and curve and dance the air currents, tricksy as wild woods magic. They hang in the air, fall down, then up, then down again.

The day after the Solstice, the hens began laying again–first one, then two. To carry a warm egg from henhouse to kitchen in half-frozen hands is a visceral and primal pleasure. The hens are partying as if spring break is here.

But it is still winter. It stretches thin in places and spring peeps through. But we are not out of the winter woods yet.