When the Solstice comes upon our valley, the days are short and the dawn—- slowly rising. Here, the frost and cold are but a haiku of winter. For a few days, icy sparkling rainbow crystals cover all outer life with breathtaking beauty, apparent only in the early dawn hours before the sun melts the night’s freeze, and a tiny distance moon hangs long into the morning.
In those hours the light, even in the dim, dazzles in effervescent colors. The wild mat’s row of blackberry bushes reveal their tangle of maroon branches hung with frozen green opaque to light, and the occasional flourishes of yellow leaves edged with crimson. Bright red poison oak entwines the bare branches of wild bay and olive.
All else is pale, a scrim of transparent glaze. The fields are tinged with shades of lavender, yellow, and russet. The berry farm, blazing with fiery autumn color only weeks ago, is now subtle—-pink, and coated with thin ice. The birds are silent in the earliest hours. Rabbits and kits are burrowed. The fox and coyotes have retreated to nests deep in the tangle and the owl is quiet. It is mid-December. Only chevrons of honking geese herald this end of year and the winter.
Every morning just before dawn, I rise and prepare for the trail, leaving our tiny town and its Christmas decorations behind to hike the paths through wetlands, orchards, and vineyards. It is a joy when the earth enchants, and for a few hours the grief is transcendent, transience sublime—the quick transformations of energy and nature, the one heaven I may know. And she is often there with me in those moments. On these frigid mornings, I wear her mittens.
She had left them behind at the farmhouse one Christmas in snowy Vermont. Those days tug at the heart and linger even now, appearing in moments, as unexpected angels whispering of a love vanished, but deepening still. She had found them one summer at a tag sale. They were too large for her, but the colors enticed and delighted . “Josephs cloak of many colors,” she said. “but, the mitten version.” And she was right. On her, those wool mittens brought all the warmth of magical places in stripes of red, navy blue, orange, rose, and green. They were her summer gardens for winter.
I found them on a Nor’easter day when grabbing my great coat and cap, scooping up Bodhi Dog for a rush into the first heavy wet snow of the holidays—-the kind with large soft weight, which falls straight down and seems to be in slow motion. There, on the floor beneath the coat rack and boots, they appeared, brilliant color in a white-out world.
Bodhi Dog loves the snow, and she loved to walk with us and watch him eat his weight in fresh clean white drifts. His favorite sport was to ferret out the vole tunnels, which the little creatures made for safe passage across the wide lawns and pastures, hidden from the sight of barn owls and other predators. Bodhi , channeling his inner fox, could hear them speeding along the underground, rodent autobahn, and knew their tricks. She loved to watch him play and he loved her company, as I still do when she appears in spirit in the swift change of things, when beauty is wild and so intense that memory cannot hold as it unfolds.
That Christmas, we gathered monkey-vine from the marsh, red winter berry for garlands, bits of white birch bark and bouquets of dried summer flowers from the maple barn to make (just for her) a wreath laden with echoes of summer and memories of gardens. That was the Christmas in which we learned that wild winter berry smells as if a peak of blooming roses were wafting in the warm wood stove heat of a winter room. It was her last Christmas, our last play in snow. That solstice, like those known for eons, was an ending and a beginning.
The seasons came and went. Spring was thrilling as always, in northern New England, with scilla, tiny hyacinths, and white-flame tulips announcing the end of winter. But there was unease; a blight stunted the lilacs. Something dark and troubled seemed moving across the land. That summer, half the vegetable garden fell to a ground fungus, although to her eye, the scarlet runners and heavenly blue morning glories which crowded the garden fences were absolutely beautiful, and a grace of vision.
We walked there often, whenever she visited. Nearby was the grave of Harry Hound, another little dog she had come to love in his brief time, and on whom she showered her affection. That garden, among all those at the farm, flourished in a riot of color and fragrance, and she never failed to visit and name every plant that grew among its small granite boulders and stepping stones. She talked about her own gardens, which never got fully realized that season.
But between the coming and going, the surgeries, the chemo and radiation, she managed a little plot near the back deck of her small house. There she planted her favorites, and stuck into the ground every colorful glass ornament she had, making a jewel box of flowers and reflection to contemplate, and into which she could escape on the bad days when huddled on a lounge chair. Those are the memories of that summer and fall, when time slipped too quickly by and prayer escaped, like it always does, from a child’s mind in petition to an absent omniscient god.
That autumn, when the end had come, I grabbed her mittens and ran out into a blustery day with a pair of pruning scissors and in a fury, reduced an ancient overgrown Concord grapevine to a nubbin, and burst into rage-sourced tears, knowing that in less than a year’s time it would thrive more resplendently than ever. I kept shouting, “Damn you, damn you” to an empty heaven, as if all my years of worldliness still believed in miracles and a loving supreme. At the end of it, I had torn holes in the mittens and saw the stray strands of colored yarn sticking out in damaged ruin.
The mittens were packed away and forgotten. A new life began a few thousand miles away, back on the left coast away from the clear delineations of New England seasons, the certainties of intractable family and Yankee stoic acceptance. In these new lands, near the Pacific Ocean and its inland fertile valleys, passion is tradition and complexity trumps the hard and clearly mandated. The subtleties of nature in these Elysian climes require attention, meditation, and poetry of mind: for a freeze is not a true winter, however powerful its associations with a past or a recreation of grief never fully resolved.
Winter is water, here in this place, wet, rain, green and fertile. Little freezes are mere interstices, decorative and transitional. This is goddess territory, in the time when other lands are bracing for the war of winter survival, driven by great deadly storms and buried in snow. Here in the very heart of solstice and the winter, spring begins.
The winter rains turn the burnt golden hills, valleys, and vineyards Kelly Green. Grasses thrive. Among the leafless trees, giant balls of mistletoe strike cords of music, as they line the allées of old farm windbreaks. I swear one read: “Da, da, da, da, da,da da, da” the “Ode To Joy“! Joy comes in the pouring rain as life explodes with the first signs of Periwinkle and a sprig of Pussy Willow thrown onto the path. The dark rain-soaked Persimmon and Pomegranate float on black branches with clouds of bright orange and red balls of color.
Starlings, by the thousands, swarm over the vineyards, gleaning the leavings, roosting in the trees, and bringing birdsong to the warmer air. When they rise en masse, in a whir, they form arrows, swirls, waves, and echo their watery fellows in sea schools of the Pacific ocean just over the hill ridge.
In these events, in such beauty she appears, and to the passers-by of rabbits, crows, sparrows, and the occasional hiker, there must seem a strange old man, dripping wet off his silvered mustache with arms raised to the skies, his torn mittens soaking wet, as the clouds break and when a rainbow appears he shouts her name, “Janet.”