Winter breathes down my neck, a cold unwelcome kiss on exposed flesh. On the front step, footprints fossilized in ice recall where someone (me, probably) stepped in melting slush just a week ago; now my tracks are locked in time like a mastodon’s trail. Back inside the house, retrieving purse and keys to start my day, I notice ice crawling out of the corners of the kitchen window where winter seeps through the tiniest of gaps and cracks.
With the temperature at single digits on the Fahrenheit scale, even the sunlight has a sharp edge this morning—all glare and no warmth. Not much heat to shrink the snow patches from the last accumulation. More is forecasted: five inches or so by tomorrow evening.
It is mid-February. Although winter, overall, has been mild this year by comparison, the current arctic blast reminds us it is not over yet. The seasonal ice age continues.
Later in the day, the sun is high enough in a cloudless blue sky to push the temperature into the teens. Venturing out again, wearing body-padding layers and boots that weigh down each step, I am drawn to the park, my neighborhood slice of tamed wild. Snow coats the blue-gray ice, a frosted sepulcher that entombs aquatic life. The sight of it makes me shiver, as needles of cold puncture the fabric of my jeans, the thumbs of my gloves.
Below that frozen surface, though, the small life of the pond sleeps to survive. Turtles bromate; I learned this word for reptilian hibernation. In the depths of ponds, turtles find a layer of mud and leaves in which to burrow. As their heart rates slow, they don’t need to eat; they stop breathing and get what little oxygen they need from the water through specialized skin cells near their tails. (It’s a wonder what you can learn on the internet.)
In colder climates, much of wildlife hibernates—frogs and toads, snakes and fish, even insects. Mammals, including squirrels, are said to hibernate, although many are active in my yard on sunny days, gobbling up the seeds spilled from my birdfeeders. Bears, I’ve learned (by reading, not first-hand experience) do not hibernate, but spend the winter in a light sleep. Awakening a sleeping bear in winter is not a good idea, a nature web site advises. I’d wager that awakening a bear in any season is not advisable.
Just like those bromating turtles, hibernating animals slow their breath and their heart rate, allowing their bodies to conserve energy. Wondrously, during hibernation cell damage is repaired, making this state regenerative as well as protective. Scientists study hibernation for clues about to how inducing this state in humans might help the body heal from traumas, such as stroke. A hibernation state might also help humans engage in ultra-long-distance space travel. Even with all the advancements in technology, we have not stopped learning from nature.
At the pond, though, there is evidence of wildlife. Birds, roused by the sun, sing heartily, warming up for spring mating season, perhaps. Across the snowy surface of the pond, animal tracks thread the way from shore to open water. One paw print looks canine; a coyote perhaps. Another is smaller—a fox, I’d guess, or maybe a raccoon. How thirsty would you have to be to stick your muzzle in that ice water?
The wind picks up and though my feet are toasty in my heavy outdoor boots, my fingers are numb and my face tingles. Shivering is a natural impulse, small involuntary movements in the muscles to generate warmth. It’s a short-term solution at best. If I were to stay out too long, I’d be prone to hypothermia and this essay would not end well. I snap a few pictures of the animal tracks, fumbling with the focus in my clumsy gloves, and keep walking.
Underfoot is, truly, terra firma—frozen as hard as a cement floor. My boot steps make a resounding thud. What a difference a week makes.
Last weekend, the temperature was 40 degrees warmer. In the park, the ground felt spongy underfoot. Water trickled. Pond ice retreated. Ducks flapped in open spaces. A south wind tantalized with the flirtatious hope for an early spring.
Mud is winter’s other season, ice’s half-sister. With the temperature well above freezing last weekend, mid-winter mud bore witness to the Earth tilting slowly toward the sun, like a lover coaxed back into an embrace. What great hope our ancient ancestors must have found in winter days of mud and sun, a reprieve from long, dark days and perhaps from starvation. They would have ventured out, on the hunt for creatures stirred out of their hibernating sleep in search of food. Quite another meaning for “winter break,” that has nothing to do with going to Florida in February.
I hunted, too, not for sustenance, but signs of life–refusing to be discouraged by fields of brittle brown, where last summer a prairie garden had grown thick and tangled. I wanted to force the green, like the potted daffodils and hyacinths that soon will appear in the floral department at the grocery store. My scouring was rewarded as I left the park: under a bush I found a small cluster of white blossoms—galanthus, snowdrops. Heralds of spring to come, these optimists bloom in advance of the vernal equinox.
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Today those same blossoms droop on stems that look crushed and frozen. The season of mud and melting, especially in February in this northern climate, is bound to be brief. The ice age returns. Nature rolls over and resumes its healing sleep.
It is another time of waiting and healing. In addition to ice and mud, this late wintertime is also the season of ashes. Last Wednesday, I ducked into a church and received a blot on my forehead to remind me that I am dust and to dust I will return. Hearing those words I recalled the reflection of a friend, who is a minister, about humans’ dusty nature—of earth, yes, but also of stars. We are made of the same dust as the cosmos—luminous even as we are flawed.
The ashes of Lent speak of deprivation, of what we give up. As a kid, I stopped chewing gum for 40 days. I never could figure what God had against Juicy Fruit, but come Easter it never tasted so good. These days my “giving up” is more behavioral. This year, like last, I vow to give up judgment. For example, instead of jumping to some nasty conclusion about a speeding driver or one who cuts me off, I try to imagine a better motive—a sick child at home, an elderly parent who needs their care, an unforgiving boss who won’t tolerate being five minutes late. Instead of cursing at their taillights, I bless them instead, with a prayer to arrive safely.
Suspending judgment also reminds me of all the unkind assumptions people could accurately make about me: short-tempered, time-pressed, overwhelmed. Maybe they will extend me the same courtesy, assigning me the motive of juggling multiple deadlines. By showing a little mercy, I hope mercy will be shown to me.
And what of my self-judgment? Can I forgive myself for trying to do it all, and falling behind when there is too much to do? Lent invites me to look at myself without harsh judgment and learn what I can.
In my holy hibernation, I slow my racing heart and accept what comes, whether entombing ice or messy mud, knowing that from both the glory of spring will emerge in its own good time. In this mix is the preparation and the promise of all that is to come: life internal, external, eternal.
Videography by Pat Commins