JIM DODSON: Late Chill: Northern Snowfall Takes its Time
The first snowstorm of the winter arrived just before dawn and two months behind schedule last Monday.
It happened the day after I arrived back here from the Sandhills and discovered green daffodil shoots bravely poking up in my Southern garden in a bold affront to the calendar, 10 weeks premature, oblivious to the peril they face.
The papers of northern New England have been full of worries about the peculiarities owing to this strange El Nino weather and a winter that didn't happen until now:
The ground up here has yet to solidly freeze -- a first in anyone's memory.
Black bears of the North Woods have yet to hibernate.
Migrating birds have stayed put and actually begun constructing nests. Unbelievably, local birders report having rescued a few hatched babies.
While the cherry trees bloom in Washington's tidal basin, a neighbor two miles east swears that several of his early apple trees in a southern aspect have also budded. If this keeps up, he ruefully jokes, we'll have fresh fruit for Mother's Day.
One of the warmest Decembers on record yielded to possibly the balmiest January ever -- until it came to an abrupt end last Monday morning.
I was up at 4 on Dr. King's holiday, putting the coffee on and preparing to peg away on my book about returning home to the Sandhills, when I stepped out on the porch to see if the morning stars were visible and felt instead something wet and cold striking my face. I switched on the barn floodlight and -- viola! -- there was Yankee winter come at last, a bridal veil of thick, swirling snow.
I had to smile. First snows are pure magic.
They enchant with their raw beauty and surprise us with their power to shut down a busy world and cease all unnecessary movement, suspending time, rendering schedules and best-made plans irrelevant.
My wife, a teacher, calls them "nature's time out." Like her pupils, she visibly glows at the prospect of a sudden snow day.
But this tardy first snow came with a hefty price.
The winter storm that was finally bringing such mute seasonal beauty to our coastal hilltop stretched from Bangor to Baja, a super winter system that wreaked icy havoc during its long trek from California to our house, killing 54 people in nine states, plunging half of Oklahoma and Missouri into shivering darkness, turning Interstates into ice rinks, canceling a governor's inaugural parade, disrupting an estimated 20 million lives.
In its wake, the citrus crop of California also lies in ruin, devastated by a winter storm that had children in Malibu tossing snowballs for the first time in anyone's memory.
These middle days of January are traditionally the coldest days of the year, a time I anxiously call the January Flats, when things suddenly change or something unexpectedly cracks. People you've known for years mysteriously up and vanish. Life takes abrupt turns. That's why I always feel the need to be around when January's worst arrives -- to be on call for an elderly friend who is shut in or if the traitorous furnace decides to quit.
Two years ago this week, one of my oldest Maine friends phoned up out of a blue arctic night to say he and his wife had decided to sell their house and move to California. He sounded almost giddy about his decision.
"Good for you" I said. "When are you going?"
"The house went on the market today," he said. "We're leaving in two days. I know it's kind of sudden. But we're dying to get there."
And like that, they were gone.
Last year about this time, my dear friend Tom Dugan phoned to say he wouldn't be coming up from Florida to play golf in Southern Pines in February, as planned. The pain in Tom's shoulder turned out to be cancer. Within weeks, Tom was gone, too.
A few nights after his call last January, my wife and I were returning from a movie in a icy fogbank when we came upon our neighbor's house -- engulfed in fire. I phoned the volunteer fire department and unsuccessfully tried to save his dog. My neighbor wasn't home. The place burned to the ground in half an hour, leaving a stark cindered hole in a landscape of pure snow white.
I dreamed about that dog several times. It was always frantically barking, somewhere off in the falling snow. I never quite reached it in my dream, either.
During this year's first snowfall, my wife spent the entire morning curled up in the large tapestry chair, browsing her Christmas books by the fire.
Wendy's reaction to winter's fury is to venture no further than the kitchen. As the poet Horace said of Caesar's better Roman generals, adversity simply brings out her genius. Cooking is her natural defense against any of life's blizzards.
She announced plans to spend the afternoon cooking and hinted there might be a winter meal fit for an M.L. King by sundown.
I, on the other hand, crave motion in a snowstorm -- especially the first one of the season. So I worked through the morning, then took the dogs for a trudge through the falling snow before noon, trying not to think about two other treasured friends who slipped over the horizon since the last time the January Flats were upon us.
On a happier note, not long into the hike, I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of our rescued Carolina black dog. Mully was leaping and snapping at snowflakes, a canine exclamation point of joy.
This was Mully's first winter storm and her spirits lifted mine.
On the walk home, I whipped out my cell phone and dialed my old friend Colonel Bob and informed him that I was mushing into town to drag him out to lunch. The storm had passed, but the bitter cold was settling in. It was perfect soup weather.
"Are you sure you want to come out in this?" Bob demanded to know.
"I'm already out in this," I told him. "See you in 20!"
We went to our usual soup joint. Bob had Thai broccoli chicken. I chose Tuscan bean. Not many customers were in the place, but a couple sat nearby, reading through their lunches. Her pink nose was poked into a gardening magazine. His red nose was inserted in USA Today.
"Do you realize that the Doomsday clock has just been advanced two minutes?" the man announced, rattling his paper, shaking his head.
"I can't wait till the football season is finally over," she admitted with a sigh.
"I'm not talking about the kickoff to the Colts and the Patriots game, honey," he glanced over at her with an arched eyebrow. "I'm talking about the complete nuclear destruction of this planet."
"Well, I hope it doesn't happen before middle March," she calmly replied. "I've got heirloom tomato seedlings to get started."
I laughed out loud for the second time that day.
As we ate our soup, Colonel Bob told me a funny joke about an English major trying to get into heaven. Then, slyly, he informed me he'd finally finished writing his memoirs.
He's been working on this book for years. What a nice surprise.
We celebrated by sharing an iced snowflake cookie.
After I dropped Bob off at home, I mushed on to meet my teenage children at the movie theater. They felt mildly cheated that the first snow day of the year fell on a national holiday.
"We should get an extra day off," insisted my daughter Maggie. It was her turn to pick the movie. She picked "We are Marshall."
Truthfully, I'd been avoiding this film like an old wound.
Thirty-six years ago, I was heading to East Carolina when the tragedy depicted in the film occurred. For a little while, the movie made me forget about bears that refuse to hibernate and premature baby birds who won't make it to spring. It made me remember how precious every moment is with those we may lose at any given moment.
Snow was falling again as we came out of the theater. I drove slowly home over the plowed road in the gathering darkness, listening to a weather advisory on the radio that a new winter storm was bearing down on North Carolina, expected to bring ice and snow even to the Sandhills.
I tried to recall if I'd brought the fern in from the cottage terrace before I left Southern Pines. My wife sure loved that little fern. I pictured it soon looking like a little fern made of glass.
The dogs bounded out in the snow to greet us, and we had another brief merry romp in the drifts before stamping indoor to see what General Wendy had been cooking up all afternoon.
She'd made a Southern chicken bog with homemade biscuits on top.
It was a lovely meal, just what this worried snowman needed to top off an unexpectedly nice day in the January Flats.
Better yet, just before turning in, a Weymouth neighbor phoned to say she'd taken in my wife's little fern to prevent it from being "zapped by the winter storm."
It's the small things that help you sleep through these long winter nights.
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