Spring Thaw

April 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Here’s another one from Vermont Commons, which just appeared in their Mud Season issue. It’s not one of my favorites – the inevitability of writing a regular column is that some come together better than others – but it is reflective of what’s going on in my head. Some of the time, anyway. 

Also, I want to take a moment to thank Eleanor Baron for her incredible generosity with time, expertise, and general insight in the redesign of my site. Eleanor has a great site called nourishingwords.net. Thank you, Eleanor! 

Here in Cabot, the first sticking snow fell in late November. It was only a few inches; tufts of winter-dead grass breached its surface at odd intervals, as if attempting to surface for a breath of air. The boys took immediately to their skis. Newly confident in their skills, they tucked the big hill in our pasture, flying straight toward the wire fence and then, when it seemed as if tears and blood could not be avoided, threw themselves to the snow softened ground, whooping with joy. The cows looked on in wide-eyed bewilderment and really, who could blame them?

Still, there was nothing to suggest it would be a hard winter. In middle December, when it began to snow in earnest, I rejoiced. After all, in only a few weeks there’d be a January thaw because, as you know, there is always a January thaw. The knowledge of the impending melt made the pleasure of the cold and snow that much more acute. I skied every day, or nearly so, gliding softly beneath the stolid winter sky over the snowed-in tracks from the fall’s softwood harvest.

Except the thaw never came. Oh sure, there were a couple days when temperatures hovered either side of 40. But unlike most years, when winter seems to need a breather before gathering itself for a second round, this winter never relented. The snow kept accumulating, until the only the topmost fence wire remained uncovered by such a slight curtain of air that I could slip over the fence simply by leaning back to unweight the tips of my skis. The topmost fence wire is 40-inches off the ground.

Of course, it was foolish of us to expect anything else. We did so only because we are as human as anyone else and, as such, suffer under the delusion that predicting the future is as simple as extrapolating from the past. For years, winter has been easy; for years, January has delivered a respite from the sharp teeth of the season. Why should this year be any different?

It may be obvious by now, but the story of our false assumptions about the winter past has much in common with our culture’s assumptions regarding the particulars of its future. As it has been, it will be. Unless it’s even better, for of course America’s greatest days are before her; of course the inexorable march of technology will lift all boats, bringing prosperity to those that have known only paucity. Of course.

And on the flip side, the faith that a calamitous outcome is writ in stone: The collapse of our currency, any day now. Oil shortages, if not this year, then next. An endless drought, turning our nation’s breadbasket to dust and desperation.

It is, I believe, a uniquely human weakness to place such stock in the future, be it faith in prosperity, certainty of collapse, or shirtsleeves in January. We are so desirous of a roadmap that we become intractably attached to particular view. Is this dangerous or merely foolish? I don’t know. Probably it’s a bit of each.

But I’ve little doubt that at the very least, it diminishes us. Resilience, whether it’s personal, communal, or national, is not built on entrenched beliefs. Rather, it’s built on the understanding that the past is rarely an accurate predictor of the future, and that no matter how right we each think ourselves to be, sooner or later, we’re bound to be wrong.

Winter’s over. In hindsight, it wasn’t so hard, and particularly once I let go of my expectation of those warm January days, of a March that felt like spring. In the end, it was just winter, and whatever resentment I harbored over how it unfolded had nothing to do with it. And everything to do with me.

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