It’s been a long cold lonely winter
If you live in a snowy climate, like I do, and your life is connected to nature, as mine is,
winter is a big event.
Winter here in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is not just a “put on a coat and hat – and don’t forget your boots” affair. Winter for us is a campaign, a crossing, a decent, and a threshold. In this forgotten place where “progress” has been slow to erode the fabric of community, people are still beholden to the forces of nature. Each winter in the rural north, nature displays it’s power and might in a way that demands our respect and obedience.
I moved here because this place seemed a bit immune to the diseases of affluence and the inevitable arrogance which our mistaken notions of success engender. People here seem to maintain a bit more humility and the intense winters are one reason why. It is clear that we are not in charge, and a force much larger reigns over us.
I think we humans need to know this for our own sanity, and ultimately for our own security and peace of mind. As much as we have railed against this notion, we need desperately now to recognize that we are not an isolated force in the universe having to fend for our own survival, and that there is something much greater that we are merely, yet intrinsically, part of. Our culture, and perhaps humanity as a whole, has lost this knowledge, and that is why many of us are so fundamentally unhappy and insecure.
In this fringe place that we like to call the “Kingdom”, this epidemic of isolation from our immediate surroundings is a bit less rampant. In these parts, it matters how long someone has lived here, and what you came here for. There are still a lot of people in these hills whose families arrived generations ago and who feel like they are part of the landscape.
Newcomers like myself are sometimes referred to as “flatlanders” because we mostly come from places south where the land is not defined by mountains. I think a more apt term would be “pavers” because of what we did to so much of the urban and suburban metropolis that many of us fled to come here.
In a perfectly natural and respectful way, Vermonter’s tend to measure each other by how many winters a person has spent living here. This measurement may seem arbitrary and unfair to most of our culture because we don’t view the world in the same way. But then, most of us did not grow up with four months a year of frozen white landscape stretching in all directions just outside our door.
I don’t believe that any kind of measurement is helpful when it comes to people because of the way this instinctive habit of sorting each other out distances us from each other and makes it more difficult to recognize our common humanity. Yet, despite my protests, people continue to find a plethora of new ways to categorize, judge, and minimize each other.
We may have made some incremental steps toward realizing true democracy in recognizing the equality of women or people of color – which I would call true progress – yet we still cling to such childish prejudices as valuing people based on how much money they earn, how beautiful they look, how popular they are, or how much education they have.
Compared to the myriad superficial measurements that predominate our modern culture, measuring a person’s place in a community by how many winters they have stuck it out seems a bit more mature and grounded. I think it is simply a way to tell if a person has integrity and substance and is likely to stick around and be part of the community in the long run.
Vermonters tend to treat us outsiders with basic respect much of the time, but if you pretend to be one of them simply because you have spent twenty winters here, you are likely to hear the amusing adage: “Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven, that doesn’t make ‘em muffins” In case that leaves you scratching your head, it means that it takes more than a generation to call yourself a true Vermonter. “Sticking around” in Vermont terms is a long term proposition – one that lends itself to identifying with the land and making peace with the forces of nature that control so much of our existence.
While I normally bristle at any kind of exclusion or division among people, this one doesn’t bother me so much. I think it has something to do with why I moved here. I got sick of trying to measure up to someone else’s idea of success, and “threw in the towel” when I was just 20 years old. Thirteen years later, I ended up here, trying desperately to tie myself to the land, knowing that my sanity depended on reconnecting that vital link that the shortsighted leaders of our modern industrial movement were so determined to break.
The Promise of Spring
It looks like I am about to add another winter to my belt, and move one tiny notch up in the pecking order of rural Vermont community. But then if I went and said that, my neighbors would tell me not to rush things. When I mentioned to my snow plow man that I thought the end was near, he informed me that we get more than half of our snow here in March.
So, maybe it is too soon to put away the snow shoes and air out my swim shorts. The pond is still covered with thick ice, and we only glimpsed a few patches of bare ground last week, before this last snow storm. But our sap buckets are out and the sweet elixir from deep beneath the frozen earth has been boiling for days on our wood stove, filling the whole house with it’s wonderful sugary-maple smell. And there is no mistaking on a clear day that the sun’s power is growing, and the mountains of snow around the house and barn don’t stand a chance against its steady heat.
One thing I know for sure. There is no more magical and inspiring an occurrence than the explosion of life that happens on our land after a long Vermont winter. Sap spills out of the trees in its mad rush up, and green shoots begin to pop up everywhere the day the blanket of snow is pulled back by the sun. If ever we need reassurance that there is a force greater than us, of which we are inseparably a part, witnessing this unbridled frenzy of new growth gives us at least a glimpse. Better than any fleeting rainbow, the earth coming alive again after a long, cold, lonely, winter fulfills the promise of enduring life that so often is obscured beneath our vulnerability and fear.
If you need to know, as I do, that we are not alone here – that there is an intelligent and all powerful source behind all this – and that we are included in the ever-renewing cycle of life – pay attention to what is happening right before your eyes all over the northern hemisphere right now. Spring is a miracle beyond comprehension that lifts our spirits as quickly and easily as good coffee, but without side-effects.
For a moment now, stop looking at this screen, put away your distractions, and go outside. Breathe the air and notice the change that is happening slowly all around you. Take a moment to really look, and feel the presence of pure life energy as it awakens like a sleeping lion from the seemingly barren ground beneath your feet. Forget everything that you think you know and allow yourself to simply wonder at the mystery and magic of such a rebirth.
It does seem like years since we’ve been here.
And here comes the sun.
And I say, it’s alright, it’s all right indeed!