Wednesday, February 13, 2013

To Light Winter's Dark

I have loved the cold my entire life.  Not merely tolerated it, not pushed through it until spring, but reveled in it.  My shelves are disproportionally populated by the books of arctic and antarctic explorers, their amazing feats of human conquest and mind-boggling maunderings into reckless folly equally chronicled.  Winter fiction and nonfiction editions alike expand into chilly ranks on the shelves, their spines consistently stark white and muted gray. I read To build a Fire obsessively as a child.

I've performed In the Bleak Midwinter numerous times (if you know where to look, you can even find an out-of-print album of that title on which I am a performer).  Wandering a bit from the message of the lyrics though, hauntingly beautiful piece as it is, it has never resonated with me.  I've never seen winter as bleak, and I can't get past the title.

The gear and outdoor clothing we don in winter appeals to me without fail.  Dank wool and poly-pro base layers are my armor.  WindStopper fleece and rabbit fur, my crown.  I've been involved in more than one immature internet row concerning the best ice fishing creepers one can strap to one's boots to walk on the ice.  Things got embarrassingly personal during one of these dust-ups because the kit of the northern outdoorsman is a subject near my heart, and I still feel like an ass for my behavior as an interwebs noob in that discussion, these years later.  Most often, I now hold my tongue (and my typing fingers) when discussions of such things arise.

Stomping around in snowshoes, tending to the the manliest of facial landscaping, slipping into the snow camo that makes me feel like a ninja sniper, that tickle of frozen nose hairs that strikes when you step out the door, the way hardwood pops apart under the maul when the mercury nestles comfortably below zero; I find myself enamored of it all.

Even my 'stache jewelry, earned splitting firewood in the cold

There's something in particular about the freight train sound of icy wind, all fury and daggers, barreling down from the north that brings about the basest instincts in me.  I want nothing more than to take it on. The soundtrack in my mind drifts to the dark, foreboding Russian dudes like Prokofiev and Mussorgsky, and I yearn to run out there and roar back in it's face.  Like an athlete bouncing on the sidelines before the match begins, it's all adrenaline and manic pacing.  Sometimes, when I know nobody's around, I do run out there and let fly my fiercest primal scream.  It still snows and blows, but I feel better for having gotten the evil out.

Eventually, all the high adventure and common drudgery out in the frozen winterscape must come to an end, and the other great joy of winter comes to pass.  You get to go inside, to the comfortable glow of home.  Second only to the joys of being out there in it, are the joys of returning to the sanctum.  It is the light to winter's dark, the reassuring respite from winter's cold steel fist. 

I've talked at length here about my long history with heating with firewood.  It's how I grew up, toddling along behind Dad in my footie pajamas with an arm-load of kindling.  Heating with wood is difficult, time consuming, and so very rewarding on those blustery, arctic nights.  Nothing is more reassuring than staring into those glowing coals, and knowing we'll make it to dawn at least once more.

Burning wood has not gone without it's share of trying moments, though, large and small.  Trips to the hospital to get sewn up, that interminable frozen wait for the house to warm some mornings, splinters under fingernails and burn marks in the carpet from flying embers.

We had two wood burning stoves in my childhood home -- a squared and squat cook stove in the kitchen and a cast monstrosity of a parlor stove out in the living room.  Early memories of that house are dim, but I remember that the cats would begin winter mornings on the pad in the kitchen, curled up under the stove itself as it was slowly rekindled to life.  An hour later, that stove burning hot and fast, you'd find them all the way across the room, tucked into the toe-kick under the sink, having migrated slowly across the floor as it warmed.

And the Christmas Morning Disaster of 1981.  We'd gathered in the living room, after the torturous wait I think my parents enjoyed a little too much, to open presents.  Just as my brother and I were getting into the glorious chaos of clawing gaudy paper from gifts, sitting there on the floor between the glow of tree and wood stove, a stupendous crash startled us from our gluttonous glee.  A thump you feel in your chest before you realize what's happening, followed by clouds of dust and debris filling the house.  I don't know which one of us started crying first, but I was scared out of my little mop-headed mind.

After years of warming and cooling above that parlor stove, the ceiling plaster, beginning directly above the stove and radiating out over most over the ceiling, had given way en masse and plunged unceremoniously onto our yuletide celebrations.  Nobody was hurt, and we laugh about it now, but that remains the most startling and memorable Christmas morning of my life.  I got a Speak & Spell which remained unharmed by the murderous intentions of falling plaster, so all was well.

There's stew in winter too.  Lamb, venison, squirrel and rabbit, beef; whatever's on hand.  Browning hunks of protein in a cast iron pan on a weekend afternoon, knowing that they will be joined with, and transformed by, those dense root vegetables, that glossy, redolent... stew juice born of stock and maybe a little wine -- that's magic right there.  Just building a roux gets me going this time of year, before anything else even sees the pan.  The big beefy herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme get to come out and play more often too. But the captivating power of the spell is greatly diminished once June bugs start doinking off the screens in spring.  To really lose myself in a good stew, I need a few players to be present: snow drifts, buffeting winds, crusty bread, a fire in the wood burner.  Add a deep caramel-y porter, I'll probably unbuckle my belt and reach for seconds.  Keep a safe distance.

And flannel.  Come on.  We know now that cotton is about the worst fabric you can have next to your skin out in the cold.  It almost completely loses any insulation value when it gets wet, and takes forever to dry.  The days of waffle cotton long johns are passed for those of us who spend our free hours afield, and good riddance.  I adhere to the adage "cotton kills" while out there chasing fish and coyotes and dreams, but in the house, flannel rules.  My flannel pants with the fish on them, who can't love those for lounging?  And, fresh from a hot shower, sliding into flannel sheets still warm from the dryer... thank you, Jesus!   

The winter cocoon would not be complete around here in the absence of good reading material.  I'm a prodigious consumer of words, granted great joy through the turning of pages, and yes, the flicking of digital pages across a touch screen.  While I read almost whatever I can lay my paws on all year long, the habit does suffer a bit in warmer months when there's so much more to do outside.  Not so in winter.  The days are already lengthening now, but there will still be plenty of chances to hunker down with a page-turner and keep the fire going.

But first, more firewood needs to be moved into the garage...



  1. Outstanding! And once again, you have a way of painting a picture that just puts the reader right in the story like a fly on the wall! I could feel the heat and myself backing my chair away from the stove and across the kitchen, coffee cup in hand with those cats! For some reason the smell of bacon and toast filled my nostrils as I continued to read in a trance! I too had the pleasure of heating with wood as a child and have the scars to prove it.

  2. Great read Wucas! I now have the smell of a warming fire in my nose and the warmth it brings to not only the house but the mood of the house.

  3. Great read! Love the imagery...even if I'm not as much of a fan of winter as you! Well done!

  4. Capt. Kev- Thanks for the read. I'm glad I could transport you to the land of bacon and coffee. We should all live there.

    Arch- Nice to hear from you, man. Thanks for stopping in!

    Seth- Thank you. I enjoyed your blog as well, just now. I'm adding you to my blog roll. Keep up the great work!


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