Posted by: gdevi | November 10, 2010

“Norway of the year”

Commentary, Lock Haven Express, November 15, 2010

I was walking down the hill to the University from my home yesterday morning, a beautiful Fall morning. We had a week of no rains so everything was brown, cold and dry. Halfway down the hill, a huge pile of dry brown leaves blew past me left to right in a swift wave motion, away into the woods, imitating the sound of hundreds of tiny feet pattering on the asphalt as they did so. The sounds of the fall are crackly, crispy and brittle. In a month’s time, these curving hilly roads will become rather treacherous to navigate. Mama, did you put snow tires on your car, my daughter reminds me everyday. But yesterday, everything was bone-dry, brown and black, full of lines angles and planes. Walking down the hill, I could suddenly see all the neighboring houses, their back porches, the tarped patio  furniture, the covered swimming pools, the knick-knack heaps–bouncy balls, plastic chairs, toy guns, pool supplies, push-mowers, chopped wood– piled against the back walls that you don’t normally see when the trees are lush and thick with leaves. In this part of Pennsylvania, trees cover everything over summer. Whichever way you turn, trees block your view far and near. With the trees all bone-bare in November with barely a dry leaf hanging on for dear life, a sudden clarity has manifested itself everywhere. You can see clearly near and far;  you can see the squirrels scampering in the leaves in the neighbor’s yard; in the distance, you can see the thin, ribbon-like winding mountain roads leading off into houses high up on what my daughter calls  “the broccoli mountains.” As the poet observed, the fall returns us to a plain and simple sense of things. Each fall we look at these houses that disappear in the summer and become visible again in the fall with wonder: “My God, how on earth do they get up there? Who maintains the roads?” We ask in amazement.

In a letter to a friend, the poet Emily Dickinson called the month of November “the Norway of the year”: “the noons are more laconic,” Dickinson wrote, “and the sundowns sterner and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign.  November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Indeed, isn’t that what change of seasons do? Make what is familiar, foreign? Transport us from one mode of being to another? Make mercurial and unpredictable your own backyard? From my kitchen window, my daughter’s trampoline blends in with the bony trunks of the November trees in the backyard. It is now a collection cup  for falling leaves; nearly a quarter of the trampoline is filled with dead dried leaves. Dayani and her friends go on the trampoline to jump on the leaves! Careful, I tell them; watch out for the bugs in the leaves. Shake yourself and check for ticks before you come in! From the kitchen window to where our backyard slopes and dips, the ground is now undulating in a sea of leaves into which our littlest dog sinks each time she goes out.

Each fall, we find ourselves filled with a new sense of solicitousness for all that we don’t know and cannot predict or prepare for in the coming winter months. This much we know: Soon as we rake the leaves and clean the gutters, the ground would be covered by snow for the next five or six months. There is oil and heat to think about, blankets and comforters to be aired, shovels and driveway salt set aside. Throbbing with impatience in the near offing is the first snow day of the year when the bony clarity of fall will give way to the brooding dark heaviness of wet winter dawns. Then there are those mornings when the car refuses to start, the pilot light in the boiler gives out, the heater in your daughter’s room quits working, and the dog runs away into the snowy woods. Sally, our smallest dog will refuse to go out; she will stand at the kitchen door looking at the mountain of snow; in her mind she will think– this is not my house, am I in Norway? Did I really see a truck drive by with a cargo of snow? Are they taking the snow somewhere? I will put three sweaters on and pull a blanket around just in case, when I walk downstairs to the basement; did I really do laundry here in this cold tomb-like room? I will let the water run for 15 seconds before letting my fingers touch it. I will hesitate to touch the metal surfaces–quick pass and then grab the handle– trying to outwit the static charge. I once read that “Victor” the feral child that they discovered in the woods of Aveyron in France did not have any sensitivity to cold; Dr. Itard who worked with “Victor” and other scientists noticed that Victor would go out and play in the snow naked like an animal. Victor was not cold at all; nor did he catch hypothermia. Dr. Itard and other scientists concluded that our sensitivity to cold is a learned response. I must have learned the lesson really well then; I am always cold.

It must be so with any extremity of season which pits the frailty and vulnerability of all things man-made against the obdurate persistence of nature; winter returns us to our most unadorned human selves. When you peel away all the colors and shows of life, as fall does, as winter does, what we are left with is the easy slide towards death. Emily Dickinson knew this too: what is a stone? Is it alive or dead?

This is the hour of lead

Remembered if outlived

As freezing persons recollect the snow–

First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

It must be our awareness of how easy it is to die that makes us want to celebrate winter with festivals of sacred births. If there was no Christmas, no Hanukkah, no winter solstice, no winter celebrations we would invent one; we would invent some excuse to contact friends and family that we have not seen in a while. It is our awareness of mortality that makes us take note of the occasional squirrel foraging for a pine cone, the rare bird in the ruined trees , the surviving deer traipsing across a snowy field. We stop to see if a stalled car needs help. We check to see if a neighbor needs a ride. It is Norway that teaches us the value of life.

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