As another long, dark winter approaches, Ben Hewitt reflects on the importance of slowing down, settling in, and taking stock of the important things.
By Ben Hewitt
Oct 06 2020
On the Cusp of WinterPhoto Credit : Illustration by Tom Haugomat
In the fall, daylight dwindles, and there comes a morning when I scrape the first ice from the car’s windshield, then one when I break the first ice from the cows’ water, and finally one when I see the first frozen crystals creeping inward from the shores of the pond. This is the order of the ice, always. I feed the pigs, calculating how many more bags of grain I’ll need to buy before slaughter, and how much that might cost. I tread through frosted grass on my way to the woodshed for another armload of split maple, knowing that soon the grass will be hidden under snow. And I feel, as I have in recent years, a sense of apprehension for what’s to come.
I grew up loving winter, which I attribute to my Scandinavian ancestry and a fondness for many of the things snow and cold make possible—skiing, mostly, but also driveway plowing and tracking deer with my son and pulling strangers’ cars out of ditches, which I’ve learned is exponentially more enjoyable than extracting my own car. Performing the former, I’m a savior; doing the latter, I’m just another guy who got stuck. I like the coziness of winter, too: the constant tending of the fire, and the simple pleasure of returning indoors from a morning spent cutting wood. I hang my gloves on the towel rack, and remove my wet boot liners and leave them directly in front of the stove, where they’re sure to be in the way, yes, but they’re also sure to be dry by dinner.
I even like the holidays. My favorite is Thanksgiving, which for us is a simple afternoon with family and friends. There’s no football on the TV, no long-simmering feuds to hash out over turkey and mashed potatoes. We eat good food grown by our own labor, we talk, we take a walk, and then we eat some more. It does for me what I’m pretty sure Thanksgiving is supposed to do: give me pause to reflect on what’s most important to me, and to be conscious of my gratitude, which I know is too often obscured by the minutiae of life.
So why the apprehension? I cannot say, exactly. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of what’s to come. Feet of snow, or merely inches? Or worse yet, only rain. A long January thaw, or a protracted deep freeze? And if the latter, have we put up enough firewood? Some of this, I know, is the loss of daylight. Truth is, I’m not very good at passing time indoors in the evening. While my wife, Penny, is almost always engaged in some purposeful task or another, I struggle to find focus, and end up tunelessly plinking on my guitar, or browsing Craigslist for used building materials and excavators (whether we actually have a need for more used building materials is entirely beside the point, and while I have no doubt I could claim a “need” for an excavator, I have significant doubts about my ability to pay for one), or engaging in meandering, one-sided conversations with the cats. I’d read, but for me, reading on a dark winter evening is a one-way street to slumberville, a fine place to visit once the clock has struck 9 or so, but a pretty embarrassing place to find oneself at, oh, 7:30.
Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit to make a point. There are plenty of winter evenings when I strap on my skis and disappear into the moonlit night, or make at least marginal progress on one half-finished project or another. Sometimes, we line up hip-to-hip on the couch and watch a movie, or the boys and I play darts while Penny transforms slender strips of wood into beautiful and functional baskets. On occasion, I even manage to read until a reasonable bedtime. And at least every other night, I leave the poor cats alone.
I am learning, however hesitatingly, to accept and perhaps even embrace the slowed-down nature of the season—and to recognize that in some ways, it’s necessary. The pace of summer cannot be sustained. Not by me, at least, nor by anyone I know. The rhythm and ritual of living with the land is not limited to the tasks themselves but extends to the pace of life itself: the slow ramping up of spring, followed by the frenetic pace of summer, then a gradual winding down as the leaves and temperatures drop, and finally, the quasi-hibernation of winter.
When the boys were young, we read to them frequently from books of historical nonfiction; I recall one in particular that described, in sometimes excruciating detail, the isolated life of two trappers who’d hunkered down in a windowless one-room cabin to ride out a particularly brutal winter. Mostly what they did was sleep, eat, tell stories, and argue. And while there’s no part of me that aspires to replicate their experience (what?!? no Wi-Fi??), that doesn’t keep me from taking comfort in it. That my hardships are significantly less, for one, but also that when you strip away the many distractions our species has developed across the years, that’s pretty much what life boils down to: sleeping, eating, and telling stories. Maybe even arguing, too.
I’m reluctant to assign too much meaning to the coronavirus pandemic. Far as I know, the virus itself has no conscious intent or master plan. It’s just doing what all living things will do given half a chance: Survive. Replicate. Grow. And yet it’s hard to avoid noticing the ways in which, through all the tragedy and disruption, the pandemic has compelled us to follow the rules of nature a bit more closely. Our distractions remain myriad, but they are reduced. In a sense, we are all cabin-bound trappers now, staring down the tunnel of a long, dark winter, unsure of exactly how it will transpire, what hardships we might endure. (Please don’t take this as a diminishment of the suffering the virus has already inflicted, much of which has been heaped highest on those at the margins. But that is our failing; it has little to do with the virus itself, or what lessons it might offer.)
By the time you read this, it will nearly be winter proper. Thanksgiving will have come and gone, or at least be on the horizon. The pigs will be fat, and I’ll have chosen the day that seals their fate. The first icy mornings will have passed. Perhaps it will have snowed, perhaps not. Penny will surely have started on some exquisite piece of craft or another, and I’ll have drifted off on the couch with a book on my chest at least a time or two.
What will have come of the world by then is anyone’s guess; never can I recall feeling as if so much hangs so delicately. But I know this for certain: The nights will feel long and the days so very, very short, and if history is any guide, my apprehension will have given way to acceptance and, in my better moments, appreciation. It is winter. It is time to slow down. To rest. Because this I know too: Spring will come again.