PUMPING IRONY: Welcome Winter

Two of my three brothers have fled the Great North Country already this fall — one to the Gulf Coast of Florida, the other to the desert of Arizona — and the other one will be heading to the Sunshine State in his RV in less than a month. All in a feverish attempt to avoid our four-month adventure called winter. I’m not the most compassionate guy in the room, but I gotta say I feel sorry for them.

Last Saturday brought us our first authentic snowfall of the season, an event that always makes me grateful for central heating and lightweight snow shovels — and the beginning of the walking season. My faithful bicycle gets a well-earned vacation after its annual eight-month stint carrying me from Point A to Point B and points beyond, replaced by the dusty boots in the back of my closet. And I begin to recalibrate time.

Cars get you places in a hurry without any effort. A bike will get you there a little later, and you might work up a little sweat if the wind’s against you.

Walking is a whole different thing. You can’t be in a hurry, first of all. Especially when there’s snow and ice under foot. So, everything slows down, which allows you to notice stuff you might otherwise miss: the naked squirrel nests in the leafless trees, the beached logs peeking through the thin ice just upstream from the Ford Dam. All part of the exquisite wreckage we know here as winter.

“In the coldest and bleakest places,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “the warmest charities still maintain a foothold.” He believed that such extreme weather “drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it.” Which is another way of saying that our brutal winters build character. “All things seem to be called in for shelter,” he argued, “and what stays out must be part of the original frame of the universe, and of such valor as God himself.”

I’m not ready to elevate my daily commute to such lofty heights, but I’m glad to get back out into this bleak landscape every day. Not simply because it gives me a regular opportunity to practice a little mindfulness (ice underfoot helps one focus like nothing else), but because it forces me to really experience the season — to slow down and see and hear and feel everything it brings.

Yesterday, I hitched up the dog and we walked down to the river. The sun was high and the afternoon was mild — maybe 25 degrees — and the sidewalks seemed a bit less treacherous than they were earlier in the week. But there was no reason to rush, especially with Brigit inspecting every tree in the boulevard along the way. So we meandered slowly down the hill and across the parkway to the edge of the bluff, where the Mississippi presented itself in its patchy new winter garb. Years ago, MLW chronicled the gradual freezing of nearby Minnehaha Falls — it starts at the bottom and moves to the top — but ice takes over the river in more random patterns, I’ve noticed. First there’s a few thin flakes floating by, then some larger floes, which eventually blend together until the last oval of open water is captured and immobilized until March.

It’s not there quite yet, I noticed, as Brigit and I made our way over the crunchy snow toward the road leading to the lock and dam beneath the Ford Bridge. That’s when I noticed the flash of red attached to a bare oak on the bluff. We approached silently and discovered a pileated woodpecker searching for a little lunch. It’s not the first time I’ve been rewarded with such an encounter on a walk in these parts, but it always gives me pause. If I had thought to bring a camera, I would’ve snapped a photo and sent it down south to my brothers. With best wishes for a lovely winter.

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