We are still living with frigid temperatures and wind chill warnings. Today the high is -6 F (-21 C). Tonight, the forecast is – 18 F (-27 C). Until I moved here, I didn’t really pay attention to wind chill warnings. But the winds are fierce on this side of Lake Superior. Now, I listen to the warnings.
“Dangerously cold wind chills are expected. The dangerously cold wind chills will cause frostbite to exposed skin in as little as 10 minutes. Expect wind chills to range from 25 below zero to 45 below zero.” (National Weather Service)
It’s hard to believe almost three years have gone by since I posted my reflections about past north-country winters. I still have my Sorel boots after 27 years (pictured below), although they are now beyond repair. The rubber is cracked and not even gator tape will stick to keep out melting snow. The smooth-worn soles are covered by yak trax, metal springs threaded over elastic bands that keep the boots from slipping on ice. Perhaps this will be their final winter.
New Year’s Day, 2015. I know there’s much work ahead of me as I embark on the serious business of finishing books I began last year. But today, I remembered past winters while I took time to refurbish my old Sorel boots with oil and new liners for yet another winter. My boots date back to 1990, the first winter I spent in the northwoods of Wisconsin. I had accepted a position as deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency, but the clothes I brought with me were meant for a different climate. I needed more practical, warmer, clothes.
My first winter was spent in a tiny hotel room above a bar that often had live performers belting out off-tune country and western songs until the wee hours of the morning. I could walk the two blocks to my office in downtown Lac du Flambeau, but the days I had to drive were challenging. My old car, with 190,000 plus miles, didn’t like to start or keep moving in the winter cold when I first started out. The pack of stray dogs that called the downtown their home loved to chase cars, but they quickly learned that chasing me was not a contest worthy of their time and effort. As my car sputtered and bucked and stalled down the road, they grew bored. Eventually, they didn’t even look up when I chugged by. But that car, like my boots, lasted many more years. I was sad when I was finally forced to replace my car, but my boots lasted despite the many miles they’ve seen and the many places they’ve traveled.
But of all the places we’ve traveled together, these boots and I, there is one place that remains golden in my memories. It’s the cabin I moved to after that first winter above the bar. Before the winter even began, I knew that I couldn’t live there forever, so I decided to see if I could find somewhere to move that was affordable. You’d think that would be easy in the northwoods, but that’s not so. Long ago, it became a favorite spot for wealthy urbanites who were able to buy up the lakefront properties that were lost to the Ojibwe people despite a series of treaties that guaranteed tribal ownership of land within reservation boundaries in exchange for ceding the northern third of Wisconsin to the federal government.
I was fortunate to find a local realtor who knew how to find the best deals and we spent many fall days exploring such interesting fixer-uppers. We became friends. One day in mid-November, she called me at work and asked if I could take some time off in the afternoon to see another property. I said, “Sure.” (It was interesting to see so many houses in need of loving care.) She picked me up and we drove, first down the highway, then down a narrow winding country road through a national forest, and then on a dirt road. We turned about a mile later onto what I can only call a rough rutted path that could just accommodate a car, again, winding down a little hill and into a forest. When we emerged in a clearing, I saw the small brown cabin, but what caught my eye and made my heart sing was a vista of the lake and wetlands glowing in the afternoon sunlight. I knew I was home. I had no idea how I would be able to afford it, and I had no idea what it meant to live without electricity, or heat with wood. I had no idea how I would be able to get in and out during the winter, especially with my car, but I did have my boots (and later, snowshoes to attach to them.)
Living down a series of country roads, some of which were unpaved, presented both benefits and challenges. I had an opportunity to witness nature up close – the bear, deer, beaver, otters, rabbits and porcupine. I heard the powerful rhythmic pounding of eagles’ wings as they flew just over my head, the hauntingly lovely song of the loon echoing over still waters, and the howls of coyotes in the quiet winter night. Winter was my favorite time, even though it was often cold and snowy, and even though it meant a mile hike to my car when I had to make the trip to some distant city to go to work, attend class or travel for a speaking engagement or consulting job. The hike was easier in the winter. The path through the snow was easy to follow, even at night, and the mosquitoes, sand flies, deer flies, horse flies and ticks were nowhere to be seen as they bided their time for the spring thaw. Spring – mud season – also meant hiking. But I was younger then and used to the grueling physical labor living in the woods required.
Of course, living in the woods meant warm clothing in the winter, and a bug suit during most other seasons if you wanted to do serious work outdoors. I don’t have a picture of the bug suit my daughter gave me as a gift, although given the ubiquitous northwoods’ mosquitoes and sand files, I often wish I still had it. I still have the coat in the picture below. It’s the only thing I ever purchased from Victoria’s Secrets – it was incredibly cheap in their annual clearance sale. (I don’t think it’s any mystery why it hadn’t sold for full price.) The coat is a few year’s newer than my boots, but it got me through the polar vortex last year and with new loops for the buttons in lieu of the zipper that finally gave out, it will continue for many winters more.
As I unclutter, some things will remain because they are still useful. Who needs the latest fashions when old things were built to last and carry such rich memories? These old clothes remind me of quiet, starry winter nights, of the sanctuary where my grandson spent many of his childhood days.
They were simpler days of hiking, hauling wood, and clearing the beaver-culled trees from the road. Living in an urban neighborhood now, watching the plumes of toxic exhaust from the factories that block the sunlight on the few winter days without clouds, I feel the loss of times past. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors. Strange though it may sound, as deep as the grief of those lost times often is for me to face, it’s what motivates me to do what I can to touch people’s hearts for the sake of this wondrous earth and future generations. And now, my boots and I are ready for the challenges ahead.
Funny how attached I grow to tools that have served me well. Once upon a time, my boots were strapped to snow shoes as we walked through the winter woods where my ancestors lived for so many generations. Now they help give me traction on the icy sidewalks of my home in a little northern city.
I try to conserve useful resources like my boots for as long as possible. I shall miss these boots. They slip on easily and fit comfortably. Their replacements are stiff, like my aging body, and take more work to put on.
And speaking of work, I have still not finished editing and revising the manuscript I wrote about my experiences as a researcher studying Ojibwe child welfare. I have had to put it aside to teach college classes. Life has blessed me with teaching work to do, and given the austerity years ahead, I know I will need to keep working as long as I can.
Hopefully I will have time to return to my manuscript in the all too brief northern summers. In future winter weather, I will need to rely on my newer boots for my journeys.
Sometimes the simplest tasks
take me on a journey through time
glimpses of the past in simple things
threads of life that led me here
Witness to the wonders of nature
on a chilly quiet afternoon in fall
As I greet the morning facing east
the rising sun is momentarily visible
between the tree-lined horizon
and the bank of clouds moving in
Multicolored leaves provide a filter
allowing light and shadow to dance
highlighting gardens and dew-laden grass
The cool pine-scented gentle breeze
kisses my face and graying hair
and sets the wind chimes singing
Rustling leaves on trees join with their own music
Wind-blown crispy fallen leaves clicking on pavement
add counterpoint to the murmur of city traffic
I wish I could share the moment with others
But of course my camera is inside
I stop to wonder
What is this perceived need to share really about?
It’s becoming more and more difficult to blog
Perhaps it’s because it’s harder and harder to hope
Perhaps it’s because my inner reserves are depleted
by so much suffering in the world
and the myopic selfishness so prevalent today
Perhaps it’s because I have too much to do
too many details that need attention
to allow me much time for poetry and music
Perhaps it’s because I know that silence
is often the wiser choice
Words carry power, conscious and unconscious intentions
to enlighten, to inspire, to entertain, to distract,
to wound, to heal, to repel, to attract
May these simple words inspire a moment of silence to witness beauty with a deep sense of peace and gratitude