Winter's Child

Winter's Child
Sharon Hawley Flies North for the Winter

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fond Goodbye

Ten days after leaving International Falls, I realize I did not say a proper goodbye or convey to anyone listening that I have enjoyed your company. My going was too soft and too hard, too happy returning and too hard to leaving.

I feel welcome here in the oasis of Pasadena. I feel a warm wind of reception as if I have brought some sense of metaphor from the cold to share. People seem receptive to ideas derived in much different air. I have given the talk twice, trying to answer the questions I posed before going. Empathy with my strange vacation has felt good, as if some people think their own lives could use a little weirdness.

Back in November I tried to explain what sent me off alone to a cold place for the winter, where I have no family or friends, no tourist destination, no prospect of making money—and to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. I tried to convince you that it’s a budget item against available time—some thirty years—in the same way that the available money is allocated where length of life is unknown.

I felt honored to be doing this strange thing—to have the time, the freedom, health, and tolerance for being alone. I wondered, as I talked about it back then, if Thoreau who built his own house in a far-off place, felt any more honored on its completion than I did as I began.
I could have gone anywhere that’s cold with a small town and cheap accommodations, but I found those conditions met in only a few places. I arrived at International Falls because it promised to be the coldest place in the lower forty-eight states and has virtually no tourists in the winter.

I expected to spend a lot of time outside, learning to survive extreme cold, feeling and finding insights. I wanted to ice skate and ski and snowshoe. I wanted to become part of winter, not just a brief observer of it. And I wanted to understand the lives of people who live in these conditions all their lives, to compare, edit, write and ponder the exceeding cold and loneliness of border songs, bird songs, and the Aurora Borealis. This is what I expected, and I expressed the hope that I was wrong. For in being wrong, I would change and find childish newness.

What I found is mostly put down in these sixty-two blog posts. It is not what I expected.

I spent a lot of time outdoors, as hoped, and I skated and skied. I became a part of winter, not just an observer, and learned after many errors, how to dress and how to breathe. I have a little black spot on one toe, frost-nip, gained early, and it told me that to make it here I needed training. But after many days of not giving up, I can say that I have learned to survive for a few hours in most cold circumstances. While living in simple houses as the Paleo Indians did is still beyond me, living outside in the daytime is not, and if I find a warm place at night I feel quite proud to say that I can stand a day at well below zero.

But mere survival is just the start, a kind of potty training that an infant Eskimo learns on the way to becoming fully socialized and acclimated. I learned that almost none of the residents care about these things. They walk from their houses to their cars and from their cars to the next warm place. They dress with half the insulation I wear because they do not stay outside long enough to need more. With few exceptions, they are happy living here because the interiors of buildings are warm.

I did not associate with them very much because most of our interests differed. I walked to Sandy’s CafĂ© most mornings or had coffee with Jerry and Sandy, my landlords, and walked to church on Sundays, and that was about the only contact. The rest of the time I was alone on skis, in boots, in the woods, ice skating and generally being enthralled with the wonderful cold sparkling place I had come to.

I made a few friends, but even they did not quite understand my coming. There was always a small suspicion in their eyes as to my real motives. Katrina at Sandy’s Cafe understood I think, but she is a free thinker on many topics. If it seems that I have emphasized the beauty of ice crystals and diamond dust at the expense of understanding the people, then you see this adventure as I do. I wish to have better communicated with them; they are good people.

In summary, I got more than I hoped for in winter knowledge and appreciation, and less than I wanted in the lives of residents.

Thank you for reading and for your comments.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

All Packed

Tomorrow home. One last picture looking across the river to Canada.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In Transition

The air is full of imminent departure. Warm, unseasonably warm toady, clear up to thirty degrees; and tomorrow is expected to do the same. The weather was warm on my arrival back in November, and now warm at the end, as if a cycle is completing. Warm at the start—then winter set in good and earnest—then warm at the end, which is a beginning. I almost hear winter saying with a sly grin, “I made it easy for you when you were unprepared, then I showed you my full hand. Now on your departure I prepared a warm transition, and say, aloha, glad you came.”

I feel as if I have nearly proven myself indigenous in this environment, though absent for a very long time. As the wolf has established herself into modernity, where once she was made extinct in these parts by an earlier age, so I seem as one returned. The old mandate of “Subdue the earth for the good of mankind” has passed, and maybe I would not have survived that ethic any better than the wolf did. I might have become extinct too, and come back from another place only when the opinions of mankind changed. Though not completely settled in my role here, perhaps in some future mindset, like the wolf has found in this one, I might find complete adaptation. The folks here have not been hostile, but they have not understood, and like the wolf found her age-old welcome cancelled and then restored, so when the reign of poetry commences here, as the reign of environmental protection has come for the wolf, then I might be strung about the neck with colorful seeds and nuts, as necks of Paleo Indians were long before International Falls existed. Perhaps then I shall resume my ancient importance and dignity and admire myself as an oak tree does when dressed in fall regalia and sees herself in the smooth mirror of Rainy Lake. Then the news may read like the latest from Walden Pond, and I may be editor of The Daily News. I am happy to have come, and happy to be returning, the cycle swinging upward so that warm Pasadena will not be too much of a shock.

I walked again to Canada where a raven finds water at the edge of ice.

beyond a Canadian cemetery flows a river
beyond the river an American paper mill
beyond the mill lies a town where winter held me
beyond the town an airport and another life

The same fruit that I saw on November 20 (right) hangs in there today, a bit more withered.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ranier to Remember

With only three days remaining, I walked to Ranier for the last time. I unzipped my jacket and took off my gloves on the way home because the air rose to plus ten, and I felt warm. This seemed strange because on those California days at Mt. San Jacinto when it was around twenty I was thickly bundled. Something has changed inside as if antifreeze now runs through my veins.

It’s a fine sunny day, and I even see traces of diamond dust in the morning at these higher temperatures. I can’t resist taking pictures of the illusive sparkles, trying to show them as they are, against snow in its many forms. Boulder and desert snow, tiny stars in the boulders, shimmer of water in the desert.

I still see deer tracks, squirrel, others too I’d like to meet. I hear the familiar sounds—the whistle of the driverless train bringing wood chips from Chip Mountain just a quarter mile to the mill, the squeak of tires on packed snow, and the call of a raven.

I am the object of this writing, this novel; I have no protagonist. Being here is so much like an image of something real, not reality itself, that it makes the whole experience seem already made into a poem or a painting. The need to make metaphor and impression seems not as strong now. I have called relationships together in these missives and drawn attention to the things back home as likenesses of things here, but now it’s like the ending of a life where what has been done is final and only recall remains.

Birch trees with their horizontal lines and vertical strength, bark that sheathes canoes, roofs dwellings, bark that heats the paper mill, their wood from which I read a book, write a letter, eat a bowl of soup, and set the bowl on, these adaptable, bendable, and recoverable trees are on the level and they measure up. I can’t get enough of them.

Whenever I have gone to Ranier, I have taken a picture from this viewpoint. This final entry into that sequence.

Diamond dust and boulders

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cold Facts

Today, as I sit inside watching big snowflakes sashay downward, meandering in from Canada, I thought I’d review the temperature history of my winter. Each day, I recorded the morning reading from a thermometer hanging outside my door, and also the high for every day. These I compared to the averages for the past 110 years from Weather Bureau data. I put this very-personal information into an AutoCad routine I wrote many years ago for the plotting such fascinations. I include here even the next three days, but of course they are not accurate, but taken from the forecast.

I expect everyone will enthrall with wonder at the concision with which I present my winter—the unseasonably warm November, the December Plunge, the record cold of early January, and finally a warm spell at the end—all shown as a physicist might prefer.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Five more Days

Another chilly morning with temperature and wind chill well below normal. With the days winding down and only five remaining, I wonder how to proceed. I still have not found the mysterious bicycle rider, have not used the snow shoes except on one day, have not walked on the lake, except for one of its small inlets, have not gone ice fishing with Jerry, and have not Nordic skied with the two women who wanted to. Other obligations have consumed their time, while I have repeated treks in the same woods, to the same windswept fields, stores and cafes. I have experienced all that I wanted to, on a plan that evolved and changed as the days went by.

Today I walked five miles in chilling conditions that would have scared me indoors on my first day here. Fortunately, winter came on slowly, giving time to learn and acclimate. Most working people can’t do that, but stay inside except for perhaps ten minutes at a time to perform some outside duty. I can confidently say that I am better prepared physically for winter than most of the people who live in International Falls.

I feel fortunate to have been allowed to come here, to enjoy winter, and to do so without feeling that I have shirked some duty. I am fortunate to have good health and enough money, but I am also fortunate for mental ability to live frugally. It is not by will power that I have a small apartment in Pasadena without even a kitchen, but rather an innate lack of need for comfort. I am fortunate because this mental state allows me to use what I have to go and experience, rather than to stay home and feel secure. It seems an inherited trait, and not some great choosing on my part. I blame no one who chooses comfort, and sometimes I wish for a desire to settle down.

And so today I report seeing more snow, more sparkles, more crystals of growing ice, and kids playing hockey. Once I was one of them, on the ice at Pasadena Winter Gardens. Now, with just as much free time, I am open for ideas on where to go next. The desire to settle down is still only a wish.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ludicrous Art and Absurd Theology

Last Sunday I reported seeing tiny sparkles in the air as I looked in the general direction of the sun, but not in other directions. They could not have been falling snowflakes or wind-raised snow on that calm and clear day. They refused to land on my glove and did not show up on my photographs. Yet they glistened for flashing moments, hundreds of them at a time, like tiny fishes turning their shiny sides to the sun in a great blue ocean. Could I have just imagined them, having become cold-crazy as we do at the onset of hypothermia?

On Monday I reported my internet research: Tiny fog-sized droplets of water do not freeze even when the temperature falls well below the freezing point of water. Unless a particle of dust enters a droplet to start the freezing process, the droplet remains super-cooled down to minus twenty or thirty. But in extreme cold, droplets turn to ice and glisten in sunlight. They are called diamond dust. I was encouraged at finding that what I saw was possibly real, and I hoped to find some way to photograph it.

On Tuesday I saw the sparkles again, seeming to come from a vertical rainbow-like column of light which stood beside the sun and glistened with tiny stars.

The next two days were cloudy with no sign of diamond dust. But today I saw it again: unique flashing of minute points, like stars, in the sunlight. As before, the column-rainbow stood in the same position relative to the sun. I was determined to get pictures to prove that I am not cold-crazy. My attempts are shown here. I tried to catch diamond dust against the dark background of a road, the tan color of a car, the white of snow and the blue of sky where they are most distinctive and beautiful. But my pictures are like child’s drawings compared to the real phenomenon. The white spots in these pictures show my sparkles about as well as milk drops might represent stars.

I must ask you to take my word about this marvelous thing that I have seen. None of these pictures do my vision justice. I feel like Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai with tablets of stone in his hands, saying “Look! These are not my carving, they were given to me by God!” And the people said, “Yeah, right. Looks like ordinary carved stone. What’s the big deal?” So Moses, in dismay, broke the tablets, went back up the mountain and carved nicer ones by himself. I feel like going back to carve my own pictures, to render in some way what I have seen, perhaps exaggerating my sparkles to show what I feel they are, rather than how they appear in photos. Then folks might say, “She has become enthralled with these sparkles of hers and wants us to think she really saw them.

Is this the fate of art?—that unless the viewer has seen firsthand the real thing depicted, the art is good only as abstract rendering of some feeling within the artist? If, after rendering my wonderful sparkles in some art form, I am told that I have made a nice fantasy, then I might fall into sulking and think that the sparkles I remember were not really what I saw, but what I wanted to see.

There was only one solution on this bright sparkling day—go to the vacant rink and skate.

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