In the winters of my fortunate childhood, snow gleamed under bright sun. After stormy days, it blanketed the woods and splattered in clumps from fir tree boughs. On the snow surface, tracks marked out paths—generations of voles and moles and mice rising up in their turns from under-snow burrows, scampering across to grab seeds and then slipping down minute holes to trace through winter paths between the sunny snow cover and the deep earth.
Walking on deer-made and people-tramped paths in those days, I would sometimes see droppings of bear who came out to warm on a sunny day, or find, under a spruce clump, a deer family’s bed of pushed-down snow and matted hair. Some tracks announced rabbits and hares (hind-feet leaping first), red squirrels and chipmunks, ruffed grouse and partridge, beaver and mink. I learned to recognize the dog-like droppings of wolves. Once, I came upon a freshly-killed deer, the struggle spread over the snow. At half-day intervals, I came back to watch how the body was eaten by wolves and then by ravens and, at the last, by mice. As I surveyed the carnage, a partridge thrummed from a cedar stand, announcing that spring was soon to arrive.
Like that promise humming through me, flowed the words: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
Words that guide human actions are sometimes woven so early into our mental circuits that we don’t question them as they pass through.
In my early years, safe in my ancestors’ love, I’d settle into the depths of winter, a time to huddle with people or dogs, or to walk alone, bundled. Chickadee calls and grosbeaks, nuthatches and woodpeckers and hawks. A fox crossing the frozen lake. On a few still nights, wolves singing. A fortunate glimpse of moose crossing from one swamp to another.
The human culture I inherited held, as a matter of deepest conviction, that, no matter what humans might do, yet God would protect every living thing. From earliest childhood, I was assured that the words recorded in Genesis could not fail: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” To my depths, these comforted me. After I will have died, the turn of seasons would go on. New families of otter and cattails would rise.
God, according to my progenitors, had said to Noah, some hundred or more generations back: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; [even though] the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”
My grandparents and parents said the promise was true, that the seasons would endure. No matter what we did.
God would never again smite every living thing. All the earth forms, the entire living family, people among all other species and forms—never to be smitten.
* * *
This has been my love song for winter, for winter regeneration as it was in my youth.
Join me now in a new song for winter as it became after the 70s when increasing cloud cover noticeably grayed northern skies. A song for winter as it is now in unsettled awkwardness.
* * *
We are watching winter falter; the snow comes late some years; other winters have no deep cold in January and then turn to furious cold or drop burdens of snowfall in spring.
Cheerfully, some people say, “Perhaps the moose will like a mild January. Perhaps the pines will grow taller in heat.”
Many have begun to ask, “If winter does not come, what then?”
My ancestors were wrong about God, and I with them. We have, as a group and usually unwittingly, done violence against the seasons. We thought we could place human needs and desires above those of all other species, that we should be warm in our houses in winter, cool in them during summer, and free to zip from place to place no matter what our actions did to others. We thought the earth and all other beings are ours when, rather, we belong to them.
* * *
Let us thank the earth, which long kept a store of ice that would, sometimes on a north-wind day, send chilling comfort to tone down a July hot spell. Let us thank the biosphere that long maintained ice mountains so that, when a winter northwest wind traced its fingers over the woods, we used to be sure that snow would come with it, that the above-snow air would grow colder, that, when the wind would die down, the quiet of 50 below would settle over the land and that all of us— the young bear by her thick mother’s body, those aged and ready to die, the grouse in their feathered-out burrows, the human child in his snow fort, the fox in its hole —all of us could doze through the day, quiet, tucked-in, accepting.
Now the assurance of seasons has gone. Winter frequently does not quite arrive. This odd season has the sun-length of winter days, but has, some years, no snow cover for the little ones. Some years it has insufficient cold to kill liver fluke in moose or beetles in ash trees. It has far, far too many clouds. With increasing rarity does winter stretch through blue sky and bright sun over crystal snow the way it spread over our ancestors during this, the dying season.
Indeed, winter was never a haven for individual human dominance—it has been a time of hunger and of death.
But if seasonal hunger and death withdraw, so do springtime and next life.
I ponder the fate of white pine seedlings, of next generation wolves, of our human children. The earth these inherit will not blanket them softly in snow.
I have begun to dream a new dream—a dream of the 49th generation.
Seven generations ago my mother’s grandfather’s great grandparents were Sami companions to reindeer in the north parts of Europe. They wintered with glowing snow under the auroras. Seven generations from now, when the great-grandchildren of the current generation’s great-grandchildren walk this earth, they will, likely, see scant clear sky and white snow in winter. The moose will have crowded together in a search for cold, or the moose will be gone.
The climate has been altered too sharply for it to realign in the 200 years that the passing of seven generations would fill, even if we now mend our ways.
But in 49 generations, seven spans of seven generations, by then–if we humans work with the forces of earth–by then the seasons may have re-established natural cycles; by then other animals, other trees, other birds may sing through other winters.
This is my hope. May such a pattern assert. If we alter our ways. If our young people place themselves on an equal footing with the young of other species.
Can we hold out for the 49th generation, stand with the current children and their children and their children’s great-grandchildren in this effort that will bear fruit, if it does, long past our individual lives? I hope the deer mice will keep faith for 49 of their quick generations and that even the moose will hold on. I hope that the seeds of the cedar will remember, 1500 years hence, how to raise up a sweet smell on a winter’s night.
I ponder the promise that my grandpa assured me had been made by God, acknowledging now that those words are a vow for human utterance.
Here is a new scripture for us—“We will not again curse the ground any more for human’s sake; even though the imagination of our hearts has been evil, has presumed mastery of earth; even yet will we change our ways; we will not again smite any more every thing living, as we have done. While the earth remaineth, if the cycle of life be strong, then seedtime and harvest, and cold, and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
Promising such with action and word, then, when winter comes, we all—hawks and moles and people folk—can ask the winter wind for a foretaste of spring.