ON COLD, WINDY DAYS like today I can almost convince myself that I won’t enjoy going for a walk. I might even prevail, except for Molly, whose committed enthusiasm keeps my momentum going. I add layers of clothes in ritual fashion and methodically lace my boots, grab water for me, biscuits for her. Finally I reach for the leash.
Invariably, after a few minutes of plowing through the shock of frigid air, I am no longer defined by the cold but instead am able to appreciate my surroundings.
I know that walking is good for me, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Fresh air, sunshine, and exercise are potent palliatives. Taken together, they provide a powerful boost to my psyche, especially at this time of year.
But sitting inside a warm house seeing the thermometer in the 20s and the hemlocks swaying, it’s hard to take the plunge. Part of it is the clothing required: coat, hat, gloves, scarf, transform me into a woolly, earth-bound balloon.
But having four seasons is one of the distinctive features of living in New England, and winter poses challenges worth meeting head-on. While there is less light in December, its tidal slant toward dusk is spectacular from mid-afternoon on. It’s the same light I see from my windows, true, but walking I am drenched in it; it is neither incidental to my activity nor framed by filmy rectangles.
I always feel energized during and after a walk. Even the hard parts (mostly wind) are noteworthy for their sharpness, their depth of physical sensation. Better to feel uncomfortable for a few minutes each day than to risk blandness, or miss the calm of the primeval river, the cries of raptors swinging toward the sky, the glint from ephemeral ice prisms, or simply the working of my lungs and legs, propelling me while kindling thoughts like logs on a fire.
Out here even the smallest details command my attention. It’s a welcome contrast to the familiar comforts indoors.
* * *
I wrote this late in the season several years ago:
No one decreed it always must be pleasant or easy. The cold is a slow, fiery baptism — a wake-up call, like snow shocking my quivering skin or squibbing down my boots. I’ve got to act, to move, or lose it all. Winter’s slowness cannot stop the world.
The air turns a wet smoke. Molecules slow and thicken, pricking, slapping, licking my flaming nose as it parts frost waves — like July heat scorching winter’s pale legs — before expiring indoors, a glowing match or melting ice hissing on the hearth.
White sand, sting my skin. White sand, erase my footprint. White sand, slinging on the ice beach, fine as gold dust from Saskatchewan.
The stages of cold: first the cheeks go, strong at first as peppermint or whiskey’s glow, exquisite blue lemon snow. Then the wind gusts swarms of razor blades. Cold fingers the chin like an over-ripe plum and the skin tightens like a screw until it cannot move.
Cold so slow it burns. Brittle fingers thin like icicles. Next, the toes throb, shaped beneath anvil and hammer. Finally, you feel nothing at all.
The stiff skeletons of weeds and grasses bend and snap, tethered to the snow. Trees burned of their November leaves dissolve into a dozen rooflines. Stripped of foliage, December oaks reveal washed-out grays and bone. Bare limbs struggle faintly toward the bone sun.
There is no more cover for the spent washing machine dumped down the gulch two summers ago, or the scattered mounds of broken kitchen tiles, buckling like frost heaves. Or the wasp nests frozen on the lip of the old trailer, white with an aqua stripe, squatting like a bull’s eye, sparkling with rime.
Curls of wood smoke wind slowly above gray houses, its acrid taste filling rectangle barns and sheds, smudging facades of library and town hall, bricking in the colony, their bulk no longer civil green. Smoke thins, snakes past a stark white church, whose sundial steeple shades apricot and plum at dusk and dawn, regular as the clock’s steady sweep of dwindling light. A town creeps up across the river.
In winter I walk on top of the world. Three inches, six inches … nine … fifteen … my boots are buoyed by slow-moving snow, water moving so slow I see and feel its weave and flow — and then, in bitter cold, it slows to ice, and nothing goes. Except the running of the eyes and nose.
My watery view just different enough from usual to look new — like putting my hand over one eye and then the other: two views of the same road, left-eye, right-eye; winter-summer; merging into one, year done.