Out in the yard, squarely (rectangularly?) framed by the window next to my desk, is a three-pronged maple tree, a trident of wood about 50 to 60 years old (judging by its diameter), thirty feet tall. When I look at it I see at least three things: a good full cord of wood that would thrill a stove; a weather barometer made of leaves and color; and a housing project for squirrels and birds. The first is proprietary and economic, the second scientific, and the third poetic, which, blended together, is not a bad way to look at the world.
Right now it's the squirrels that interest me most, even though the changing leaves, in their yellowing demise, push hard for attention. I have two squirrels that use the tree regularly. They've been foraging steadily the last month in the fallen leaves around the tree, moving through the debris like electrons through a cloud chamber, leaving faint trails flagged by a twitching grey exclamatory tail. (More on the tail in a moment.) This pair doesn't chatter all that much, intent, I suppose, on getting enough before there's not enough. They're meanderingly industrious (even as my fingers forage through these keys to describe them), pausing often to play but never really abandoning their attack on the stinginess of the coming winter.
The tail. These two have plush tails, handsome tails, a spectrum of grey from dark grey shoots near the core of the tail to pearl grey tips, like a plume of woodsmoke on a cold October day. The tail sometimes seems to have life of its own, sometimes thoroughly erect like the flag on a mailbox announcing a package to be sent, at other times whimsically undulating, like a feather-duster being shaken out a window. It metronomes, points, see-saws, gavels, gesturing out whatever passes for a passing thought in a squirrel. Like our own faces it moves often of its own accord, and so we have to accord it respect, even if we often don't know what it's saying.
The other day they chased each other up and down the maple for at least ten minutes, the dry scuttle of their claws mixed with their cheeps and chittering. They moved up and down the three main trunks, out on to thin whispers of limbs where they launched themselves either up or down to another thicker branches, along the chainlink fence around the yard, over the garbage cans, through the dry brocade of dead leaves, back up the trunks -- some squirrel version of "tag," though "it-ness" changed constantly, each squirrel taking turns being both pursued and pursuer. During this frantic gamboling they paused occasionally to carry a seed or cart an acorn from the oaks next door up to their nests up the branches, then picked up the Keystone chase without a blink of an eye (if squirrels blink). At times they were so fast I couldn't see them, their grey pelts blending with the maple's grey bark, descending from the upper part of the tree in a scattering spiral that brought them into view, then out of view, like a coin in the hand of a good magician. Then back to foraging, their noses flickering like some geiger counter attuned to the radiation of food.
It may not be the same two squirrels I see each time, but there are always two, and so I make them the same. I have written this in much the same way they have worked, sometimes having the words just spiral down the trunk of my brain in a flashy descent, at other times picking through various dead leaves to find a husk redolent of food, stored away in a sentence for a later feast. And as for winter -- I am pulling my skin in around me just as tightly as they are, cheeping and jabbering until the snow slows the blood, even then pushing out occasionÂally to taste the saved vittle and catch the cold that affirms the contained warmth under the skin, underlines the brain poking through waste to find what feeds.
When Shakespeare began "Richard III" with "Now is the winter of our discontent," he began with the wrong season. Summer is the real season of discontent. Summer has all the disadvantages and none of the benefits of temptation, ratcheting the desires up tight with devilish enticement but never offering a spasm worth the twinge. Summer does have some virtues, like a boring man who dresses well. But summer is really cheap seats, soft ice-cream, crumbs in the bottom of the cold water bottle.
So what recommends the great and glorious winter, this season of content? Many people don't understand winter. They see winter as confinement and negation, the natural symbol of being sent to bed without supper. But the opposite is really true. Winter brings reality down to inescapable essentials: warmth, decent food, serviceable clothing, proportional thought, considered action. Winter helps us measure ourselves; it resists us and does not protect our cherished myths about superiority or talent. It is a harsh-lighted mirror that throws back at us what we are not and what we need to become. Where summer is sand that shifts, a smooth undulation, winter is crazed ice over purling water, one element in two versions, just as we in ourselves hold the ice of death and the free water of imagination.
The winter I think of most often is the first winter Thoreau must have spent at (and on) Walden Pond. His cabin was ten by fifteen, heated from a fireplace built with his own hands, his woodshed a few steps from his front door. The closest sign of life was the railroad a few rods from him; Concord was a mile and a half away. As the shingles of his cabin grew more weathered during his first winter there, so must have he. By investigating his world, he investigated himself. The depths of the pond he recorded so dutifully were his own depths, its length and breadth the geography of his own place in the world.
Thoreau could not have done what he did if he lived where it was always summer. He needed a world of contrasts in order to find comparisons. He needed a restricted world in order to find what was free and unlimited. He needed a world loosened from material desire, even from emotional desire, so that he could hear and distill the silence of a December night. Our modern world is in part filled with too much summer, too much that simply is without question or balancing contrast. A strong dose of Thoreauvian winter, both literal and figurative, would remind us of essentials, and the coldness that surrounds us might be balanced by the warmth of discovery and explanation.
It's too bad humans gave up hibernation. I read an interesting book review the other day about how our bodies still prepare for winter, taking on extra weight, lengthening sleep patterns, changing metabolic rates. The author went on to say that much of the stress we feel during the winter months comes from the disjunction of what our bodies are prepared to do and what we, in our modern rush, push them to do. Natural law again loses out to cultural law: Slow Down loses out to Make A Buck.
But imagine the benefits if humans restored their ability to hibernate. Think of the simple physical blessings. First, we'd be choreographed into nature's own cycle of recuperation. We wouldn't be stressed by imposed chronologies, such as eastern standard time. Our bodies would move to their own rhythms and there would be a comfortable buffer between the necessities of the outside world and our own universe of heartbeat and breathing. We would become full of health.
There would be social advantages as well. We could avoid the strain of the holidays, celebrating thanks and gifts in the spring when the world alarms us to become fully alive once more. We would be able to take a time-out from each other. We could indulge a required truce and get away for a while from the narrow view we have of each other's faults and insufficiencies. We could build some tolerance for the inevitable disappointments our imperfect natures seem to promise. A lengthy absence from social tangling might go a long way toward making us all less defensive, less afraid, more forgiving.
There might be economic dislocations, of course, when most of the world in the far northern and southern latitudes decide to sleep for six months or so, but they could be adjusted for. Or we could simple say that those who wish to work can, and those who wish to hibernate can hibernate, gradually hoping to convince the Type A's that hibernation is not a personal insult to their vision of the future. Politically, a long lull in international tensions would only be to the good.
Think how this hibernation would feel, this movement of the individual body towards its own North Star, towards its own center from which the rest of the world radiates. Having reached that center the self can begin to build its own peace, sleeping hour by sleeping hour, not only refreshing the machinery but also giving pause to the army of fears and wounds that too often threaten to overawe all of who we are. Shakespeare said that sleep was a rehearsal for death. Not so here - hibernation would be a dress run for living again.
I've always found Thanksgiving a strange holiday. What, exactly, are we giving thanks for? There's the usual party line, that we're re-creating the original Thanksgiving Day meal of the Pilgrims and giving thanks to some Creator for the privilege of life. But we don't really eat what they ate -- turkey was not on the table, for one thing, and the fare, while abundant, was fairly simple. And we certainly don't eat the meal with the same sense of blessed relief the Pilgrims did, having suffered tortuous weather, disease, and failure from almost the moment they set foot on shore. We usually try to see if we can cram in that last soupcon of potato or pie, and then take a nap.
And thanking the Creator -- think about that for a moment. When we thank someone, we thank them for something, a gift of some sort, and a gift that acknowledges the essence of who we are. What sorts of gifts has the Creator given us? Disease, tornadoes, mosquitoes, parasites, not to mention the ills created by our active imaginations, like soft ice cream and television. These aren't gifts. Far too often they become penances, and if a gift reveals the intentions of the giftgiver, then our Creator has a rather low opinion of his creation. It's meaningless to give thanks to a Creator who never consulted with us about how we wanted to be created, or whether we wanted to be created at all.
What is it, then, that we should be giving thanks to? In 1938, Wilbur Cross, governor of Connecticut, wrote a tribute to Thanksgiving in the New York Times. In a somewhat gushing style, he wrote that we should give thanks for "the harvest of earth, the yield of patient mind and faithful hand, that have kept us fed and clothed and have made for us a shelter even against the storm." I like these words because they implicitly tell us that we should be giving thanks to everyone and everyâ€‘thing who has made it possible to render our lives on this earth. To be sure, there is enough hatred, disappointment, and anger to go around for what parents didn't do and what lovers didn't do and what life itself has failed to deliver, enough sometimes to make us believe that being thankful is a fool's errand. But all that "realism" is usually the work of 364 days of the year. On this day it would be worth it to give time to remembering what and who has made things possible rather than impossible, passable rather than impassable. Look at the faces of the family around the table or listen closely to the voice on the phone or even give a moment to the car that ferries you around, usually with only minimal maintenance, and find that point of light that is the gift from that source. Then give thanks, and that will keep us clothed and fed for another year, keep the storm from our houses.