Saturday, March 1, 2008

White

Once, I knew a person who saw nothing to like in nature. There was nothing "of interest" there, and he could look out upon the world that made him and his kind and be utterly unmoved. Only the works of man gave him anything to consider. (But what are the works of man made of? A reworked fragment of the root and whole that is "nature," perhaps?) He would turn his face to a scene of such powerful beauty it could knock you cold, and not feel a thing.

I don't think I'd want to live inside that head for a minute--or, well, in the interest of science, maybe a second, to see what it feels like--especially on the days of winter like today. The snow is loving the earth. It falls and falls. I wish more of it. Outside is a rare privilege for the poor likes of us.

{Oh, I'm a little liar, grandly overstating my case. The shoveling does get tiresome. The plow guys have stopped coming, it seems, which I guess is okay since I can't pay them anyway. I rely on my shovel (excellent for an upper-body workout!) and the kindness of strangers and friends. I suppose I should be offended that some men in the neighborhood have been helping me out, but I'm not; I'm touched by the old-fashioned gallantry. And if I owned a truck with a plow, I'd be gallant too.
My neighbor spent a long time out in the sleet the other day clearing a space for my car at the end of the drive. Then I went out with my shovel and unburied the mailbox. I heaved some of the wet snow out into the roadway, where it would melt in short order. Later that night, I came home with a carload of groceries after dark, suddenly dismayed to remember that I'd have to carry them down the long drive by hand. But even more dismaying was the sight, illuminated in the headlights, of a four-foot mountain of wet snow that had been painstakingly constructed in the exact middle of my cleared space so I couldn't get in. I wanted to weep. Not only for the additional work it would cost, but for the meanness. Turns out it was the town road crew, who don't like it if you throw any snow in the road, and who retaliate the way a ten-year-old would.
But all this was redeemed, and then some, on Wednesday, when I took my son--and, as is frequently the case these days, a shovel--out to wait for the school bus. I used the time to dig out the gate so it would open, the end of the drive from the rill of road-plowed snow, the mailbox (again). The snow was wet, icy underneath, and heavy. My struggle must have been pretty visible--and audible. My son tried to take the shovel away from me to help, but I couldn't let him, because I needed to get it done, and I knew I'd be out there two hours at least. I looked up to see him turned away, head down. "Honey?" He looked at me, pain on his face. "I don't like to see you work so hard, Mom. It hurts me."
Compassion. The greatest of all virtues? It must be. Without it, how can one truly love? And my child, filled with it . . . }

Of course, I speak of winter as a citizen of the twenty-first century, which has provided me with electric power, a fuel oil burner, the delivery by truck (not personal saw and maul) of cordwood for the fire, teflon-coated snow shovels, ample supply of Trader Joe's excellent candles, and full cupboards courtesy of Hannaford (aka Cantafford). And when I venture out, I can wear a jacket branded Killy--remember Jean-Claude? oh, how we swooned when we were thirteen!--with more features than a 757 and made of fibers that came from a test tube to keep one impervious to sleet or north wind.

Do you not wonder how it is that our fur-covered friends can be perfectly comfortable indoors at 70 degrees and then outdoors at 20, with no change of costume? Puts that Killy to shame.

But I can go out and bathe in this peculiar beauty--it is deeply interesting, to me, at least--knowing that I will return to my artificially heated world. Such are the limitations of humans. The air is soft and the quiet has a presence, a weight, a sort of hum about it. It makes you want to close your eyes and fall over, in faith that the angel of snow will catch you. It makes you want to be a child again.

Nelly too returns to--what, exactly? Something in the snow, anyway. It gets her juices flowing. In a torrent. It sends her into paroxysms of craziness. She crouches, gets a wild look in her eye. Then she springs, springs again, like a demented child's toy. She boings all over the yard. Butt in the air, her nose goes like a shovel, submerged past her eyes in the white. Then up she pops, looking at you in surprise--Wha --? There is a little snocone perched on the end of her nose. Cute.

What is decidedly uncute is what happens when she becomes possessed by the snow demon and my child is out. Aha! she thinks: a full-size tug toy! She goes barreling toward him. No neophyte to this treacherous attack--because that's what it is to him, a tug-of-war to the death--he tries to arm himself with a snowball, but often it's too late. Nelly goes for his gloves, his hat, his jacket sleeve. Anything she can get in her teeth. And she goes into a frenzy the likes of which she only does in snow. He screams and pulls back, as a child is wont to do, which has the unfortunate effect on Nelly (Emeril in training that she is) of making her kick it up a notch: bam! By this point he is crying, and she has likely made tooth contact--though not on purpose--with his skin.

When your child is in distress, it unleashes something in a mother: that fabled power that will not stop at anything to save him, even if it requires removing a two-ton vehicle. Or a twenty-pound Nelly.

I have never hated her except in these icy moments.

The trainers among you are shaking your heads. And you are right to do so. I know what I need to do in order to manage this, or retrain a new behavior. It's more work than shoveling. But if I want to preserve my fantasy of our little family out enjoying the snow, I must.

I am reading the journals of Edward Abbey, which he aptly called "Confessions of a Barbarian." I do not think I would have liked him: a classic manic-depressive, like so many of the great writers, ensuring he's driven as an artist but pretty much of a self-serving shit as a person. But he was fearlessly connected to the larger world, I mean the world larger than man and his works. A writer to the last, he wrote, "There are, after all, several things more important than art. Like a pine tree on a mountainside. Like a juniper in the red desert. Like air and sunlight."

He said, "My concern for wilderness is not aesthetic but physical, sensual, empathic, spiritual, political, but above all moral: all beings are created equal, are all endowed by their Creator (whatever--God or Evolution or Nature) with certain inalienable rights. . . . Humanity has four billion desperate advocates, but how many has the mountain lion, the snail darter, the eagle, the bighorn, the ibex, the Siberian tiger, the eland and the elephant?"

His idea of "monkeywrenching" to destroy the destroyer's works is basically an adolescent dream of revenge: so alluring, vengeance against the powerful unjust, imagining the big kaboom in blowing up a dam that's laid waste to some holy beauty. But one can surely forgive him that. Among other things, he loved the snow.


3 comments:

coldH2O said...

I'm not so sure that "destroying the destroyer" is necessarily "adolescent". I think, however, that it is hard for anyone who loves the snow to blow up a damn, without thinking about blowing up a person(s). It's our own, occasionally foolish, morality, that keeps most of us from doing something like that. Plus, the defenders of the wild don't have the training in explosives to do the job. The closest I've come is tossing a M-80 into the Wiscosnin River from the Davenport Street bridge. If I could, I would blow that dam up, I suppose, but I would rather that the country as a whole would come to realize the damage done. Then take a deep breath & fix it.

Paul Kowacki said...

A few nights ago Sebastian and I were in the back yard when, suddenly, a few hundred feet away, in a little hollow up on the slope, a group of coyotes started their yip and howl. Then, at an angle to us, another group started. They were right on top of us, and the wind must have been just right, because they couldn't see us, and didn't know we were there. Stereo! The most beautiful music I've ever heard. They kept up for 10 minutes, then I heard one group further away, then they were gone.

The next day, Austin, a 6yr old, and I, and his mom, had the most splendid time following the tracks across the ridge, struggling/plunging into the deep snow, clutching rocks and branches. Got cold, wet, pink-cheeked, and all smiles.

I've lived the life in Cannes, Brugges, and Torino, partied in Chicago and Atlanta, seen the wonders in cities like Paris and New York, but I can't recall anything that beats the spectacular beauty that Mother Nature reveals. Sorry, I know it's not PC but, my pity has become scorn for those who choose to be less human by refusing that deep inborn bond with life in the world around us. At best, they remind me of a painting, perhaps by Peter Breugel (? a little help here), 17th century, of a line of blind men following each other across the landscape.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Yeah, maybe you're right, Cold Water: maybe not adolescent, but certainly an act of angry frustration. This is justified, of course: standing by while your ship is torpedoed is the ultimate in helplessness. And when it's being sunk for stupid greed, well, then . . . I am both in sympathy with the likes of ELF and also horrified. I think someone should make a bumper sticker of Abbey's declaration, "God Bless America. Let's save some of it!" (Then again, bumper stickers are meant to go on bumpers. Too much irony there for me.)

Paul--You are so, so right. The fact that there is still, near me, a little bit of true darkness at night, a little bit of space through which humans do not tramp, is a source of some of the deepest peace I know. As is the sound of the coyotes at night.