Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Last Month

Things freeze deeply in December. The earth hardens. This last month of the year has a sharp smell - not unpleasant, just not soft like organic smells that travel on a medium of warm, moist air in seasons just passed. Warm-blooded creatures know profoundly that we’re vulnerable to northern elements in winter and must take precautions to survive. When we venture out, that knowledge makes us keener. If we’re incautious we freeze, perhaps to death. When we brave the cold in New England, it gives us a certain state of mind. We’re vigilant when we’re outside. When we’re dressed right, with the proper socks, boots, gloves, and jacket, we’re confident, secure. It’s the security we feel indoors when the stove is burning and we know the woodshed is full.

There’s little light this month when the shortest day of the whole year comes three weeks in, but what light there is reaches us through bare hardwoods and reflects off smooth-barked trees like beeches, birches and some maples. When snow comes, the angle of the sun is so low, the white surface reflects bright beams right into our eyes whenever we look south. But even the glare feels good. There may be little duration to December sun but we’re very aware of it at more than a conscious level. We know why the ancients marked winter solstice, building elaborate stone monuments to pinpoint and mark it. It’s a northern thing.

December is quiet, but the slightest sound can carry a good distance. Cold things move sluggishly. Some animals go down underground and curl up on themselves in hibernation and dream the dreams of their species in that dormant state. Others burrow around under the snow looking for seeds, and still others prowl above the snow listening for that burrowing sound to pounce on and eat whatever is stirring. Coyotes below Christian Hill seem to howl more in December. Was it the full moon recently passed? Have they done it every year but I was too sleepy to awaken? When I hear their high-pitched yipping, I picture a pack of them chasing deer wounded during the just-ended hunting season. Or, perhaps it’s just the coyotes’ nature to howl at night - announcing to all that they exist, that they’re making their way in the world just as the rest of us struggle to, each in our own realm.

Though it hasn’t yet, the thermometer can really plummet this month. The coldest temperature I ever witnessed occurred early during week one of my first December in Maine. My third daughter was born December 2nd and I returned alone from the hospital while my other children stayed with in-laws. Before my eyes opened the next morning, I smelled cold. The stove had nearly gone out, but there were a few tiny embers left to get it going again. I refilled it, got it cranking, and tried to turn on the faucet in the old dogleg tub for a bath, but nothing happened. I got dressed and went out to warm up the car but it wouldn’t turn over. The thermometer read almost forty below zero. I’ve never seen it that cold since but it was good basic training for this newcomer to Maine’s winter.

The lakes and ponds ice over this month. Lazy loons will linger while open water remains, but they have to vacate in December. When the entire surface freeze over and it gets really cold, loon cries are replaced by the echoing booms of thickening ice. I have childhood memories of skating around ice fishermen as a red would flag go up and, hand-over-hand, a fisherman would pull up a struggling pickerel or eel that had its own life way down beneath the cold, thick ice I was standing on. How different those cold-blooded creatures were from us mammals on the surface in our thick clothing and boots. If we assumed their temperature, we’d be dead, as each of our bodies would be sooner or later, cold and lying horizontal beneath the hard ground when our struggles were over. Another part of us, however, would transcend it all and abide somewhere else.

That’s why Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Christ at the end of this cold, dark month, I think. That birth gave hope to us creatures His Father created in His image and likeness - the hope that we could indeed win our great struggle in the end. In that Spirit, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why December?