Thursday, November 15, 2012

Winter

We had a little preview of winter last week, plunging temperatures and a few inches of snow. Didn't last long, but reminded me why we'll be heading south in December.

Wasn't always like this. I used to love the winter. A tramp in the woods after a snowfall was my idea of heaven.

During all the time I was raising a family, there was a special place I retreated to when the hubbub at home got to be too much -- a wooded bluff overlooking a pond not far from my house. And no better time to be there than a cold, clear winter night when the pond was frozen and the ground covered with fresh snow.

There was something about a winter night that cleared the cobwebs and focused the mind. Overhead red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel teased with their hints of color. The Pleiades beckoned with faint lights; on the clearest, darkest nights I might see nine stars in the cluster, instead of the six that can usually be seen with the unaided eye. The Milky Way draped at Orion's back, not nearly as bright as the starry sash of summer, but all the prettier for it. "One secret of observing nature is capacity to take a hint," wrote the naturalist John Burroughs. Winter was all hints, and that's why I loved it.

I would sit on the snowy bluff and listen to the unearthly sounds of the pond, as plunging temperatures caused the ice to stretch and groan. The rumble of the ice was muffled by the snow-covered evergreens. The sounds of the village were quieted too, the occasional traffic on Main Street drowned out by the silence of soft surfaces. I would lie back in the foot-deep snow and almost hear -- or imagine I could almost hear -- the songs of the stars in their courses. Winter was a time for solitude and silence, when nature whispered whatever lessons she had to teach, and the slightest distraction was enough to keep one from hearing.

That was then, this is now. The dark skies have been nearly erased by light pollution. Traffic on Main Street is an unceasing roar. The bluff is still there, and the pond occasionally freezes, but the magic is gone. The slush in the driveway needs to be shoveled. Driving on icy roads is a nuisance. The cold aches in the bones.

So off we will go, to our tropic isle, where on a winter night I can lie half-naked on the terrace and count the stars in the Pleiades. But make no mistake; since we came to the island light pollution and ambient noise has increased. There may or may not be places left in the world where a sharp-eyed observer can see more than six Pleiads and nature's whispers can still be heard, but we're too old to find them. Soon enough, I suppose, we'll have to withdraw to permanent residence in New England. If nature still has lessons to teach me, she will have to shout.