Snow bears the most wonderful scent. Particularly after a long, hot summer, a warm and wet autumn, when composting grass and molds perfume the air. The tiniest, shortest season-within-a-season is the Foliage Peak, around the first and second week of October. It’s easy to miss this one if you are not out in it, raking leafpiles or sneaking in the last fishing trips to the pond before it is sealed beneath a foot of ice. There will be just a few days when the tons of dried leaves create some of my favorite, delicate aromatic nuances.
Then one morning, arising in the darkness, I open the door to let Sassy June out, and the smell wafts to me through the open door. It smells exactly like that of which it is made, cold and water. It is snow on the way, and this is the harbinger of Cold Season. In my book, there are a hundred subtle changes throughout the year which I identify as seasons-within-seasons. The Standard Four are just too long and vague. Spring has snow, then crocuses, then mud, then tulips, then American Robins and before you know it, the dozen springs move on into the multiple summers.
And after the dozen autumns, the many parts of Cold Season approach. First there is just coldness. No longer do we revel in the luxury of stepping out the door without consideration of our garments. Slowly we add sweatshirts. Then gloves, and maybe a hat. As the season commences, we’ll get out our barn coat and snow boots. By the time we are deep within the middle of this odyssey, we will don long-johns and “base layers”. Wrap our faces with scarves, pull on the big Berne snowsuit, and the felt-lined Ranger Boots.
Cold Season sports some of the most beautiful sunrises of the year. Or perhaps it is more related to timing. In the long, easy days of summer, Sun is up way before Sassy and me. In the evenings, it still hangs in the sky after the end of Jeapordy. During winter, Sun seems to seek my companionship. The morning commute is greeted with frozen sunrises. Crystals hanging in red skies. Delicate flakes fluttering Earthward, backlighted by gold and pink and bright cerulean blue.
The challenges of the season come along at a steady pace. Finding the ice scrapers for the car, closing the storm windows. Firing the pellet stove and gas heaters, the smell of hot dust as the heat machines slowly wind up. Oh, surprise! Forgot to shut off the water to the outdoor faucet, the ice freezing in the spray head, cracking the plastic. “You know your hose is on out here?” son Ryan asks on a visit.
We’ll have a little snow by Thanksgiving most years. We almost always have white Christmases, though I have known a year or two when the day was devoid of snow. For me and my ilk, snow is a requirement for a fully-enjoyable holiday. This year threatened to be green, but we were granted reprieve as the snow fell gently on Christmas Eve. Just enough for a pretty dusting, everything painted new and white. Just when some old guy says something to the effect of “We just don’t have winters like the old days.”, along comes a blizzard to suggest he may be mistaken. Somehow, these are every bit as exciting as when I was a child, and the prospect of a “snow day” off from school was most welcome. A double bonus; no school, and three feet of snow to play in!
On the trails of Engleville, I can venture forth under the most challenging circumstances. Twelve degrees below zero and a ten-mile-per-hour wind. I can imagine myself on a Coast Guard Cutter in the Bering Sea, Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Mounted Police in the days of the Yukon Gold Rush. I’ll stand again atop Nishan Hill for the thousandth time, and feel the wind pounding against me, making me sway like a sapling. It is here I feel closest to this Great Cosmos. This must be what it’s like in space, on the surface of Pluto, the asteroids of the Kuyper belt. Of course, I have the back-of-my-mind assurance that I am only a twenty-minute walk to a hot fire and a cup of steaming coffee.
Now I will count the tiny handful of weekends we’ll have to immerse ourselves in all that is Cold Season. Ice fishing and snowmobiling, ski-joring with Sassy June, snowshoe walks past snow-covered pines, the birds of winter, the long, moonlit nights, gray days veiled in flurries.
This is a quieter season for the most part. No neighbor lawn mowers grazing, no clamoring combines rolling up and down Engleville Road. (Though the Town of Sharon’s big Oshgosh V-plow will rumble past a couple of times a day in bad weather, son-in-law Kenyon waving from the window.) On a sunny, snowy day, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear the kids from the farm and the “Blue House Boys” next door, sledding down the hills, building snow forts, engaging in snowball fights, the laughter of children filling the frozen air.
On another bright winter day, the whining sounds of snowmobiles will be heard from all directions as they ride the abandoned rail bed north to the village, cross the carefully marked trail lanes over the hayfields, climbing to the Corporation Land, Engleville Pond, and the State Forest beyond. And here on the ranch, my grandchildren will tear up the neatly groomed trails, carefully conditioned for an old man and his old dog, riding the Ski-Doo, pulling siblings and cousins on a plastic sled, arguing over whose turn it is to drive.
There will be walks in the woods, down to the Little Beaver Creek. There will be rabbit- hunting in the hedgerows. There will be warm nights in the high school gym watching basketball games. There will be frigid days when we fish through the ice and debate our sanity for doing so. There will be frozen moments alone on a trail, with silent steady snowfall and an evasive sun. And I will be filled with reverence for this place, this time, this planet, this cosmos, this simple, beautiful life.
Then one day, the rest of the world will smell a smell, note the steadily fading snowdrifts, perhaps see a tiny purple flower shoving its way through the snow. A tiny giant, driven by tenacity, unphased by the cold. And they will begin to decry and declare “We’re nearing the end of winter! Look, signs of spring!”
I will feign joy for their benefit.
Though inside, I will shed a tiny frozen tear for the passing of the Cold Season.
Take care and keep in touch,