“It’s colder than old bones this morning,” somebody must have said once upon a time to nobody in particular.
If mercury doesn’t run through yours, ask the rhododendrons their secret: the waxy leaves curl back upon themselves as the temperature falls, so that below 20°F, these that cover the knees of the roadside birches no longer have leaves at all, but only hundreds of dangly, dark-green, tubular earrings, their facets glinting in dawn light like a chandelier’s. No explanation of rhododendrons’ response to temperature (called thermotropism) has proven entirely satisfactory. One long-held idea is that such a behavior helps the plant retain water during dry winter months, but there is little evidence to support it.
[Rhododendron, Colder & Warmer]
If plants can be said to behave in the weather, surely a person can do as well. A good shiver is a place to start. But to really warm up, you'll have to fit snowshoes to your boots and tramp up the next hill, breaking a new trail. Now you’re really behaving. You’ll have to find footing across a sluice-way, where a quick stream runs out from under the pond ice. It gossips and giggles down among a maze of knobbed rocks, which must ache the deep ache of old, numbed joints, unworked for millennia. Then uphill again, panting, warmer, till you reach a clearing where a house once stood.
When this was all pastureland, the house must have looked down commandingly onto the full length of the pond, and up to Bald Mountain on the far side. Now the woods have crept up around it and risen high above the old stone chimney, which is all that’s still intact—a showy flower of stones escaped from a stone garden. You can go right up to it and crouch inside the fireplace, feel around for lingering shreds or shards of heat, but any clues as to who shivered here are buried under two feet of snow and a stratum of frozen earth.
A chimney warms itself from within, but this one seems lonely without its walls. You can roll together a quick snow-boy to keep it company, with partridge berries for eyes and spruce twigs woven into a broad-brimmed hat, but he's not much in the way of company. The people who rubbed their hands and stamped their feet on this hearth aren’t gone enough. If you dare to reach up the chimney-pipe as far as the elbow, you’ll pull out a long-handled, long-tined grilling fork that’s been there God knows how many years. Strike it against the stone mantle and you have the first note to the folk song you can sing to cheer yourself up, the one about the kettle that “whistles a while on the hob” whenever the man of the house returns. Or if you feel just too somber, you’ll swing into a minor key and chant a few lines from Frost’s poem “Directive,” where he’s out wandering and stumbles across a few old signs of human habitation:
…The children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine…
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
No lilacs now, just snow like a coverlet over everything that won’t jump up and shake itself. It threatens to lump everything together: human and inhuman alike, alive and dead alike. But here’s a Brown Creeper, shuffling up a tree-trunk like an old man in slippers. He pokes his curved bill up underneath each petal of the blue-green lichen that blooms on these red oaks like tarnish on copper candlesticks. What he’s looking for under there, who knows? Breakfast, or an old flame? If you let your ear unfurl, you can almost wish out of the air a girl’s high voice, which giggles while you search for something she’s hidden, and whispers, Warmer!…you’re getting warmer…
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory.