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Rick Bass discovers the redemptive power of a frozen landscape.
Work is hard in January. Words come no more or less easily, but the cold can distract you. Hunkering next to the fire in the piss-ant wood stove out in the drafty log cabin where I work, candlelight fluttering in the cold, my limbs get so chilled I often prop my feet up right by the wood stove, or stop to tuck one bare hand or the other under my armpit. Or I hold my hands out to the flames perilously close, midsentence, before continuing on.
During the deepest freezes—generally anything colder than ten below zero—the cabin is uninhabitable, even for a few minutes at a time. Instead, each morning I’ll arise at two or three, so that I can work in the warmth of the house, downstairs, before anybody wakes up. Finishing by daylight, in time to make the school run, I return from the school run disoriented and weary, and nap for half an hour or so.
Out of such irregularity, a rhythm is made, a rhythm of fatigue, as you’re stretched thinner and thinner by the odd hours, and this couples with the natural insomnia that plagues many of us in winter. Combining with the brilliant full moon, all this lures one into a world entirely different from the one the rest of the country engages in. Add to this the fact that you’re frequently working on short stories or novels, on other worlds, dreams, in which you believe deeply, worlds entirely made up, potentially disruptive. You become convinced that the bears, who for the most part don’t fight in January but instead sleep straight through it, have it right, as do all the animals that migrate. Like a prisoner, or a puppet, you might find yourself reeling on through the month, unmindful of its cost, your energy dissipating.
There are days, though, when I’m able to work out in my cabin by the marsh’s edge. Not every day is frigid. On some mornings, with new snow across the cabin roof like the warmest quilt in the world, I’ll work for two or three hours before the ice-skin between tin-roof and snow becomes slick, viscous. Suddenly, the whole shittaree releases, and the curve and arc of rooftop snow cascades past my window, followed immediately by a sparkling shower of smaller ice crystals in the big slab’s wake, crystals as shimmering as fairy dust. Soon enough the rooftop is again covered over with snow. You stare at things longer in January. Seen from the window of my writing cabin, the frozen gray limbs of the alder are a maze.
Cut as neatly as if with a knife through the forest are the trails, startlingly precise lanes made by the deer. As the snow piles higher and higher, the lanes become ever deeper, in the manner of some grand river sawing its way down through a mountain. These lanes will disappear soon enough (leaving only a strand line of deer pellets, and the shining silver hairs that were shed, and the occasional burnished mahogany antlers, as elaborate as candelabras)—but in January, these hoof-cut rivers are a dramatic part of the landscape, the only place that you and the deer can walk without sinking up to your belly in snow. The deer use these constant thoroughfares to stay alive; the few calories saved possess some equivalent of time, measured in minutes or hours if not days, moving them that much closer to the end of winter, and survival.
Winter Sludge Blood, 2001
Some people get depressed here in the valley in the long, lightless winter. I’ve talked to some of these folks and they say that it’s the strangest thing: when depression hits, they’re still fully capable of recognizing beauty, but such recognition almost makes the depression worse, for they can no longer take pleasure in it. As if there is a disconnect, some error in internal wiring that separates beauty from joy, or worse yet, enjoins beauty with sadness.
Can you imagine what it must be like for these folks, year in and year out—entering the dark tunnel of winter, knowing that it is going to knock you down, pick you up, knock you down, pick you up—the stretch and pull and compression of winter, the darkening? Scientists say it’s all about sunlight: as if we are but machines in this regard, or solar cells, fueled by the sun.
Regarding such people, it’s as if you are walking beside a river and encounter along the bank a submerged piece of driftwood, so watersoaked it no longer floats. The years have hollowed out intricate seams of weakness—have scoured out all the knots—and replaced those pores with river sediment, clay and gravel. Polished further by the years and weather, the branch assumes qualities of stone: so much so you cannot say whether the branch is made of wood or stone: It is something in between.
I would like to think that a person who has survived winter’s perhaps inevitable depression of spirit—the violent euphoria balanced by the dark—might hold such a branch and feel a connection to its patterns of erosion-and-infill, its mosaic of grit and gravel, that are of its own making, and the world’s. Buoyed up by its beauty, such a person would put the branch back into the icy river.
Because it’s January—the latest, last, farthermost part of January—that person might be on skis, rather than on foot. It might with luck be the first sunny day in weeks, brilliant and frigid, the sky cracked open with sunlight. The world breathing in full color again, rather than black-and-white. And pushing on into that bright clarity that has been missed for so long, the skier might marvel at his or her own happiness—the happiness welling up from within, happiness coming back like a migration of something in the blood, something rare and wild and elemental. And the skier might, in the onrushing return of this happiness, marvel at the very mystery of us: marveling not even at the who, what, or why of existence, but that it simply is. ▼
Rick Bass is the author of sixteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including Where the Sea Used to Be; The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness; The Book of Yaak; and In the Loyal Mountains. He lives with his family on a remote ranch in Montana.
Photo: "Mt. Tremper, New York" © Jake Rajs