Winter is a Coming In

We’re officially not quite half-way between autumn equinox on September 21st and winter solstice on December 21st, but the “cold alert” has been sounding in our house the last week or so. We’ve had a frost, the leaves are falling, and the heat’s even kicked on two or three times.
My wife Betsy looks to the mercury creeping downward as a time to mourn the passing of deep Southern summer. She puts her warm-weather clothes away with reluctance and savors every temporary rise in temperatures, hoping that this year maybe the cold will just pass us by.

There’s so much to keep up with when it’s cold. We have a fireplace and there are wood piles to maintain. Out in the side yard is the big one, but we keep some stacked on the front porch for easy access. There’s shuttling the wood back and forth in the wheelbarrow between them. There are ashes to empty when it burns and wood to bring in for the next one. We’ve already had one fire. It was earlier this year than last by a week. The first fire each year is an important event. It marks the boundary between warm and cold.

Just this week we were heading up to the mountains for an annual October weekend with friends. Our place there sits at 3,000 feet and winter’s about three weeks earlier than it is here. The trees are already bare and the wind whips around. Before we left Betsy fished out last winter’s gloves out of the closet and found only five odd pairs. There was one full set, from two different ski gloves, but she wore them anyway, along with a floppy black hat.

I take to the cold. I like making an inventory of bulky socks and buying more each year if I need them. I like wearing long plants again and layering flannel shirts and old reliable jackets. The cold is the only time of the year you’ll see me in a sport coat, usually a gold corduroy one with elbow patches like we joke college professors always wear.

Getting out my outdoor clothes deepens my fondness for the seasons as well. Every item engineered for warmth and comfort outdoors tells a story of my years in the woods and on the rivers. I still wear the dark blue Patagonia jacket I’ve had for 22 years. Rather than buy a new one I’ve sent this one back two times for new zippers. That ancient jacket reminds me of two decades of winter. There are burn holes from campfires and splash stains from cooking in gloves.

Fall is my favorite time of the year. I like the seams of experience it reveals, the need for passages, the way the cooling evenings point out where we were and where we’re going. July is absorbent. Experiences disappear into its long days and bloom. In October things fall away and the distances are revealed.

October is a reflective month. Days like this I think about the planet in motion, and how the winter is where we naturally head after the deep warmth of summer’s growing season. I don’t know if I could live in a place where there were not distinct seasons.

Yet there is something sad about all the falling away around us after October has passed. The November trees have dropped their leaves, the water cools, the vines, so bold and expansive in July, all die back. By December everything begins to move indoors. Things are put away-gardens, shorts, hoses, and sandals. By the time January rolls around you have to listen very carefully in the slumbering depths of winter to hear the sound of April approaching.

Far north in Montreal it’s said there’s an entire city underground, with a constant temperature of 70 degrees. People there can go from home to work and back every day and never step outside. They can shop, go to movies, eat dinner in a restaurant and never have to step up on the surface of our bitter cold planet. We have it better here. Sometimes in winter a warm snap will remind us how far south we really are. Winter for us is often more of a concept than a reality.

I know there are places close to the equator where it never gets cold, where the eternal breeze is the temperature of July, where the attitude is tropical, and the trees are palms. Gloves are foreign objects there. These are not the places of my dreams. I need the changes that arrive on the solstices and equinoxes in October, December, March, and June. I need the four points on the earth’s compass.

In my religion one of the sacraments has always been this yearly change, this natural system of seasons. My faith is based in cycles. I look to the shortening days for strength and assurance. The warmth will come back around and I wait it out.

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