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77 Notes & Comment A Winter's Tale

Illustration by David Johnson

Out on that cobalt ice I feel the same age as the children, and do not tire, and the leaps of my heart are in perfect lockstep with theirs

by Rick Bass

WHEN I consider whether anything memorable or extraordinary has happened to me up here in the Montana winter, I come up lacking. I don't have a specific winter's tale. Or if I ever had one, it has been wiped clean from the slate; no memory or even hint of a memorable winter event exists. It's as if all the winters of my life have hypnotized me, committing my memory to snowmelt, to runoff.

Mostly I remember the ephemera of winter -- the regular details, hypnotic and soothing in their repetition and their steadfast predictability, which give a peculiar sweetness to the so-short days, the steadiness of the non-events. It's possible that I'm sleeping through most of winter's memorability. (Often in January and February I sleep ten hours a night; I'm exhausted by five in the evening, wobbly by six, longing for the pillow by seven, and snoring by eight.) But I don't think so. I don't believe that it's in winter's nature to live by big events. Winter lacks the pyrotechnics of spring, the brute, strapping joy of summer, the old sugary nostalgia of autumn. It's just cold and elegant, monochromatic, somnolent. Animals are asleep or gone south. I might hear a lone raven croak or caw, and the integrity of that sound, so isolate, can seem almost shattering. For a moment I nearly awaken -- such crispness, amid a time of all-other mutedness, lures my heart up and out of its sleepy resting time. But then the raven is gone. I listen to the cloth-cutting sound of its heavy wingbeats, and then even that is gone, and it doesn't call again.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

From the archives:

"In Praise of Snow," by Cullen Murphy (January, 1995)
Watching it, understanding it, forecasting it, predicting how much water is in it -- all this is a surprisingly large and intricate undertaking, one on which our society urgently depends.

"A Year in Montana," by E. B. Neally (August, 1866)
"While welcoming all changes tending towards refinement and a higher civilization, the careful observer of the life of these remote people can point to some qualities among them which he would have unchangeable as their grand old mountains, -- their frankness and honesty of purpose, their love of justice, and their sturdy democracy."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "A Disappearing Eden" (October 2, 1997)
Both in his fiction and in his new memoir, North Country, Howard Frank Mosher tells stories of those living in some of the wildest and most isolated parts of the country.

I remember the sounds in town in early winter, as the trucks go driving past with their rattling, clanking tire chains. But I'm not sure that's memorable.

I remember the sight of a swarm of mayflies hatching along the river during a snowstorm, when the temperature was right around freezing: mayflies rising and disappearing into a descending curtain of snow.

I remember the way the house gets warmer in the middle of the night when it's snowing -- as if someone had laid another blanket over me. I remember what it's like to wake briefly, feel that extra warmth, know without having to look out the window that the snow has begun again, and then go back to sleep.

I remember walking outside one day in midwinter, when my skin was already dry and tight -- going from 60 indoors to -45 outside. When the cold air hit my face, my skin contracted so quickly that the thin skin on the bridge of my nose split, as if a fine knife had been drawn across it, and a spray of blood leaped out from that split.

What I remember about winters past is the sweet and complete loneliness, and the deep rest of down time. The incredible, unyielding slowness. The purple, snow-laden skies dense over the twin humps of Roderick Butte outside my kitchen window: the same view every day.

The routine: up early, eat a bowl of oatmeal, drive my older daughter to school, return home, fix coffee, head out to the cabin to work, shuffling through the new snow, usually ankle-deep. Such stillness: to remember color or sound at that time of year, one must go into the imagination.

Build a fire in the wood stove. Work for three or four hours. Go back to the house. Only a few hours of light left, just enough time to put on snowshoes or cross-country skis and set out for a short trip, which is a necessary thing every day, no matter what the weather -- necessary for the beauty, but also to keep the blood flowing, to keep cabin fever at bay. Down in the depths of winter a fine line distinguishes euphoria from despair for the unpracticed or the extravagant. One has to move carefully, slowly, as if on thin ice above a deep emotional chasm.

While I'm out on snowshoes or skis, even with my heart pounding and my blood running strong, I find that I'll nonetheless fall back into trances, into winter states of near-hypnosis. I can stare for long moments at the stark white of an aspen tree against the day's new snow, with more falling, or at the ice scallop where a deer bedded down, the warmth of its body melting its shape into fallen snow, the cast as yet unfilled by the oncoming snow. And I can be made inexplicably happy by such staring.

Time to push on, gliding on the skis. Not going anywhere, and not running from anything. Just going.

* * *

My wife and I have two young daughters, and I worry as I age that they will soon find us, or me, exceedingly boring. I worry that I will hold them back with my staid, sleepy pleasure in the world; that my stodginess might somehow rub off on them; that my willingness to postpone the pursuit of true excitement in favor of a quiet evening at home with a book, or a short walk in the woods, may in some vague way be keeping them from unfettered joy.

I don't always feel that way. But in winter it's more pronounced; their hearts beat so fast, and mine beats so slowly.

Once, something happened that I guess I could call memorable -- though someone else might find it unexceptional.

Our house looks out on a large, perfectly round marsh. We live tucked beneath dense forests of spruce and fir and larch, but the marsh has only sky above it -- one of the few openings in the dense forest.

Once or twice each winter a chinook will blow through, melting the snow in the marsh and turning it into a pond; and then, following the chinook, the cold will return, freezing the pond crackling solid, perfect for skating. In any winter weather we ski or sled on the frozen marsh. I attach the sled to my waist with a rope and gallop around and around like a horse, giving the girls rides, glorying at being, for a little while, out from under the beautiful shroud of the forest. But in the cold spells following those chinooks we skate, and because the ice is so new, so quickly reformulated, it is strangely clear. We can see the bent, yellowing marsh grass folded down below that clear ice, but we aren't in danger: the ice is solid, and even if it weren't, the marsh is rarely more than a foot deep.

The clarity, the lucidity, of the ice is not the memorable thing. We've discovered that at dusk -- even after the sun has gone down behind the buttes -- this clear, clean ice will retain bands of color within it, ribbons of cobalt, extraterrestrial in hue. We have no idea where the color is coming from. No sunlight is left in the sky -- just the ghost light of dusk. But the ice glows with those space-blue ribbons, just beneath the slick surface. We've never seen the color anywhere else. It seems trapped in the ice, desiring to get out. We can see it only at dusk, and it's there for only a day or two. Then the snow returns and buries it.

The memorable thing is this: that swirling cobalt gives us extra energy, extra strength. The children are always joyful, but out there on that clear ice I can skate with them and pull them on the sled all day long, on into the dusk, and into the gloom of winter-evening light, long past supper, leaping, sliding, running, jumping. Out on that cobalt pond another alchemy seems to take place just above the ice: I feel the same age as the children, and do not tire, and the leaps of my heart are in perfect lockstep with theirs.

Later that night, after supper, because the ice is smooth and perfect, I go back out to skate on it by starlight, and to watch the winter stars, so fierce and bright. It's twenty below or colder, but the stars are so much more brilliant, the atmosphere is so clear, at that temperature, and that great opening in the sky above the marsh is exhilarating.

I hope the children remember those times. They are memorable to me.

I have no other tales beyond that. Have I slept through winter always? Have I missed something? I don't believe that I have.


Rick Bass is the author of The Book of Yaak (1996) and The New Wolves (1998).

Illustration by David Johnson.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; A Winter's Tale - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 22-24.