Welcome to the neighborhood
(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)
One recent afternoon, before the latest siege of snow and ice, Jackson the dog and I went to run on our usual trail. As the sun’s bright warmth appeared and vanished on the trail, we danced on the edge between the solace of sunshine and the gloom of overcast. I viscerally understood the human desire for the sun, the worship of so mighty a cosmic force. After all, for most of human existence, there have been no easy substitutes for it, except fire — no electric lights, no convenient evasions from the cold darkness of the season. In winter, sunlight — or lack of it — transforms the landscape and the experience.
In February in Tennessee we are pinballed around, not only day to day — shorts and T shirt one day, snow flurries the next — but, on a less severe scale, even within the timeframe of a three-mile run. Standing on the earthen dam of one of Sewanee’s small ponds, you bask in sunlight, face upturned. Then, enclosed in cloud, sudden brisk breeze makes you pull your wool cap down to the eyebrows.
Our planned turnaround that afternoon was Cedar Hollow Lake. Arriving at the small bridge ahead of Jackson, I paused as two Canada geese moved slowly and majestically away from the shore to my right, toward the thin sheen of ice in the lake’s center. I had not seen them ever before, and wondered whether they were new arrivals. Suddenly, I was surprised by immense gratification at this evidence of the world ordering itself in a timeless way: God’s creation turning, with the late winter, toward the nesting instinct of spring. The male and female moved along comfortably side-by-side as couples do; had they been casing the neighborhood, to see if it had the infrastructure they wanted for their prospective brood?…good schools, medical care, low crime rate, convenient groceries?
I liked the idea of sharing the lake with them over the next few months, seeing the goslings scurry off into the warming lake waters as we approached in April and May, with Jackson perhaps encountering the fiercely protective parents if he were to come too close.
Winter and I have had some rough patches in our relationship this year. There have been moments of childlike frolicking in the snow, and others of griping ridiculously at the reality of cold and yearning deeply for 90 degrees, a hammock, sweat. Sometimes, winter can seem to be locked into place; the future can feel purely theoretical, an exercise in imagination. Even worse, the cold darkness of winter can make the path ahead appear daunting, even scary: what a friend of mine calls “awful-izing” — counting all the ways things can go wrong in our lives, and in those lives closest to us.
Sometimes, though, the future is brought near with joyful hope. Pregnancies are learned of, babies born; new careers, homes, projects are launched. To focus on death without birth, loss without creation, cold without warmth to come, is to live wrongly, to ignore the whole of what the universe is. It’s a grave affront to where and who we are, and to what we have been gifted: the totality of existence.
Sometimes a pair of mating geese arrive on a cloudy winter day, bearing reminders that the earth does turn, the spring approaches, that we are not in fact frozen in time and place. The intellectual becomes material, and dismay gives way to joy.