My favorite season is always the one just emerging. I’m a New Englander and grateful that my homeland has four distinct seasons so I can feel that pleasant sense of expectation quarterly. Spring can be short some years — rarely because summer arrives early, and usually because winter lingers long. Sometimes it lasts only two or three weeks but it always makes an appearance. Right now winter is coming. I see it, smell it, feel it, and pleasurably remember all the sixty-plus times I’ve experienced this.
The remembrances are not specific. Rather, they’re generalized sensations most often triggered by smell. Every evening before going up to bed, I like to step outside in the dark, breathe the air, look at the lights, listen to the night sounds, and feel that I’m the only one out there. When I’m in the city where there’s a lot of ambient light, I stand in the shadows. A few windows in each of the houses surrounding ours are lit up. Parts of TV screens are visible. Occasionally people walk by on the sidewalk unaware of my watching. Then I wonder what other creatures may have heard me come out, themselves in deeper shadow and knowing I’ve joined them. Sometimes I see a gray fox making his rounds, always plodding the same path. Sometimes a raccoon is out exploring. Occasionally a jet comes over low. There’s a cell phone tower behind our house and pilots use it as a marker sometimes to approach the Portland Jetport a few miles away.
Stepping outside our Lovell house at night, noises and lights are nearly all natural, except some far-off lights on hillsides in neighboring Chatham, New Hampshire. If I’m out long enough, I’ll hear barred owls call to each other. There are usually two or three within earshot on a quiet night and sometimes one will perch on a limb overlooking our back field. A coyote pack prowls the swamp at the bottom of the hill and sometimes they’re on the hunt, howling away. Other times I hear only one yelping at the night.
If there’s no moon, it takes longer for my pupils to dilate enough to see even vaguely what’s around me. Night creatures in Lovell are more aware of me than I of them. I’ll hear deer snort and jump into the woods as soon as I step out. Other, smaller creatures stay still a long time, usually until I go back inside. Sometimes a fox, a raccoon, or a coyote will make its way across the back field. I see jets, but they’re miles high and silent. All I can make out are their lights moving from star to star. I imagine rows of people seated in coach sleeping, reading, or talking. I wonder if any are looking out the window in my direction. If so, they may see lights from the village a mile down the hill, but not my house or me outside staring up.
I have the same habit in the morning — if I don’t have to hurry off somewhere. I’m an early riser. After showering and exercising, I get dressed and go down to make coffee. Then I’ll step outside and stand quietly. Morning smells are different from night smells and change with the season. I smell a season coming before I see it or feel it. I think animals do too and even more acutely, as they must prepare more to survive the coming winter. In late fall I smell the sweet odor of decaying vegetation, but that goes away when everything freezes. After standing still a while, I may walk around. It’s usually dark when I’m out there this time of year, but sometimes the day is just starting to fill with light.
When the kids were little, I’d invite one or two to accompany me on my evening walkouts. When we had animals, they had to be fed and watered, then we’d just stand in the dark and quietly take it all in. I might point out the stars in the Milky Way, describe how many there were, how wondrous it all was, and Who created it. I remember those moments fondly.
For a while we had an outside hot tub. My wife and I would soak in it winter evenings. I especially liked it when the heater/pump cycled off and I could hear the night sounds. I’d savor the odd sensation of being suspended in hot water while feeling frigid Maine air on my head and shoulders.
Such solitary outside moments seem fitting ways to both begin and end each day, standing there until the cold penetrates to my skin, then stepping back inside a warm house, grateful to have it.