The crackling fire spits and pops. We nestle against its warmth. Outside, the season’s cold rests upon the night. The first snow fell this morning. And just as we have done every first snow these past four decades, Henry David Thoreau and I settle into familiar places around the hearth, warm biscuits and steaming cups of tea plated nearby, heavy woolen throws laying comfortably across our laps.
To my mind nothing speaks more beautifully of the year’s transition than the tapestries he weaves with simple words placed in expert patterns. Our fireside visits embrace the season, welcome it, give it a nod and a smile and a warm handshake. Many an hour have we spent sitting together on evenings such as this, hearing wind rattle windows, watching flames dance warmly, losing ourselves in comfortable thoughts of nature.
I sip my tea and look at him expectantly. Already I can see him hiking the woodlands of his thoughts, his eyes seeking the first thread of that which is to come. In his presence I always listen more than waiting to talk.
Finally, thoughtfully, he asks, “Shall we speak of winter?”
“Yes, I think that would be nice.” I quiet myself, focus on him, feel as much as hear his voice when it pours forth into the small room.
“Just yesterday I watched through the window an egret stroll about the meadow, snowy white and warm peach painted on a canvas of autumn. Today is different. Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great antagonist, Winter. In the bare trees and twigs what a display of muscle! Yet no matter her dress, Nature will bear the closest inspection of her mysteries. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain, to solve the questions she splashes before our eyes.
“Winter’s barren landscapes chide us to give our attention to the splendor of things nearby. When the air is thick and the sky overcast, we need not travel so far to have high expectations, for in her nakedness she teaches us to be less distracted but instead to be more connected, more aware.
“For my part, in winter I take occasion to explore some near wood which my walks commonly overshoot. I see nowadays in various places the scattered feathers of meadowlarks, etc., where some hawk, or perhaps even a falcon, has torn them to pieces.
“In the midst of this wood hides a pond! Without winter I would not have discovered it, or its island, or the meadow between the island and the shore, or a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island. Without winter I would not have known of the coots in the pond and I would not have rested my eyes upon the most beguiling of ducks. Without winter I would not have seen two pheasants become three, a second lass joining the pair. These things I would have missed were I too much enamored by flowers and butterflies or the dance of spring leaves waltzed by a zephyr.
“What a shame that would be! This morning, a gray, overcast, still day, and I stood upon the porch as much listening to as watching the very few fine snowflakes that began falling, and within minutes a regular snow-storm had commenced, fine flakes falling steadily, and rapidly whitening all the landscape. In half an hour the russet earth was painted white even to the horizon. Do we know of any other so silent and sudden a change?
“I marveled at this abrupt new world, absently tossing seed atop the snow wondering how long it would take the birds to find it—assuming the snow did not cover it first. I laughed at myself almost immediately for doubting. The notes of one or two small birds, this cold morning, in the now comparatively leafless woods, sounded like a nail dropped on an anvil, or a glass pendant tinkling against its neighbor. I knew they were there, the birds, the feathered specters of winter’s stark world, a few seeming as lost as I sometimes am.
“Hiding in that powerful transition of seasons, all around me, more small birds than usual prancing about—sparrows and towhees, even a few joyful chickadees wearing black caps to keep their heads warm. The comings and goings challenged me with views of birds that hardly could be recognized.
“—Oh, talked, or tried to talk, with Ralph Waldo Emerson this morning. Lost my time—nay, almost my identity. He, having seen something I did not, talked to the wind—told me what I missed, and told me repeatedly—and I lost my time trying to imagine myself a bird building a nest so I would not have to listen to his prattling.—
“Nature loves this rhyme so well that she never tires of repeating it. So sweet and wholesome is the winter, so simple and moderate, so satisfactory and perfect, that it reminds us of old discoveries made new again, reminds us that her children will never weary of it. What a poem! An epic in blank verse, enriched with a million tinkling rhymes. It is solid beauty. It has been subjected to the vicissitudes of millions of years of the gods, and not a single superfluous ornament remains. The severest and coldest of the immortal critics have shot their arrows at and pruned it till it cannot be amended. Ah, what a time is winter!”
We finish our tea and biscuits then, sitting in silence, feeling the heat of the fire on one side and the cold of the night on the other. When we two, he and I, had taken our fill of drink and snack, we together stand and walk to the door, step through into the night, perch in winter’s embrace as it settles upon the porch around us.
“Winter brings more than newfound happiness and discovery,” he says into the still night air, “for the sun has been set some time now yet darkness fails to hide the challenges that spring like skeletal flowers from frozen ground. That soft, clear, star-filled sky stretching before us seems the scene, the stage or field, for some rare and important drama to be acted on. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it. Methinks I would share every creature’s suffering for the sake of its experience and joy.”
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Many thanks to Henry David Thoreau, a man who has taught me much, and who teaches me each time he speaks. (Of note: Much of this is original and unadulterated Thoreau. In some cases, however, I took artistic license to editorialize, add to, subtract from, paraphrase, or otherwise augment his words to better fit the theme of and/or submissions to this edition of the carnival. In the spirit of things, I know he won’t mind.)