The season of death has come. We’ve been flirting with frost for most of October, though the unusually wet and cloudy month has kept the killing freeze at bay. But Saturday morning the bluff was glazed with ice. Not the kind that falls from above, but the sort that creeps up from the earth as accumulated warmth and moisture from the passing season meets freezing air from the north. The result is astoundingly beautiful—millions of miniature crystals coating every exposed surface from blades of grass to rooftops and still-clinging leaves.
But the effect of frost is deadly. Except for bluegrass and brome and other cool season grasses that are able to withstand temperatures below 32 degrees, the grasses are dormant or dead. The garden is finished, and the only homegrown things we’ll eat for months are those stowed in jars and freezer bags and the cellar. A few petunias and a rose protected by our south overhand still bravely bloom, but all other flowers are finished. Sweet aromas have given way to wilt and decay. For the next six months, hopes and illusions of revival are gone.
Yet today the sun has returned, and its reach through south-facing windows is strong and long; this afternoon we’ll be toasting in t-shirts and socks without fossil fuels or wood. And there are other trade-offs and benefits to enjoy. Yes, I’ll be cutting and splitting firewood, but no more weeds to chop. I may soon be shoveling snow, but I won’t mow the lawn until May. The house may need touch-up stain, but well, I can’t do that until spring. There’s less daylight to enjoy, but more time to sit by the fire with friends, and maybe I’ll even get more sleep. Songbirds that depend on insects and nectar have flown south, but they are replaced at the feeder by a United Nations of winter birds.
And there are less tangible things. Winter is a time for reflection, a time to give thanks for the fruits of the season past. We may long for fresh cherries and apples, but we can heat up the oven and bake a pie from frozen fruit. The colder the night, the clearer the sky and its million stars, and the more distinct the yips of coyotes on the hunt. I prowl the woods more silently on fallen leaves, and through the opened canopy I gaze on distant hills.
Now the pendulum pace picks up, swinging ever faster toward the longest night. And with winter solstice less than two months away, we will hold our breaths until the faithful Earth resumes her tilt back toward the sun.
Hope does spring eternal in the human breast as poet Alexander Pope reminds us, and the coming winter gives us plenty of time and reasons to cultivate our capacities for hope. The opposite of hope is despair, and yes, sometimes through the long winter ahead we will be drawn by its grip. But let us keep our eyes on the crystalline frost below our feet and the constellations overhead. Despair is a state of mind, as is hope, as is the capacity to enjoy the beauty and promises that each moment brings.
Read more from Jerry in his book, Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff.