“The Way We Live”
- By John Haines
Having been whipped through Paradise
and seen humanity
strolling like an overfed beast
set loose from its cage,
a man may long for nothing so much
as a house of snow,
a blue stone for a lamp,
and a skin to cover his head.
If I was required to pick one month in the year when I would be willing, even happy, to hibernate, it would be November. The first to the thirtieth, full stop. Oh yes, I would miss some things. All the drama of freeze-up on the big lake, ice making and un-making and making again, cold clear nights with a moon coming on, roaring southwesterly gales and the crash of waves in the night; then more nights of deep cold, then another southerly gale. The ice edge advancing and receding; the days steadily shortening as we slide toward Solstice.
The big lake is still open but inland it is Winter, and there are dogs to run and trails to break. Mushing, in this first month of the six or seven we get here, is a sled and bone pounder. A daily or twice-daily or every-other-day ritual: suit up, fire out of the yard behind a team of pent-up berserkers, up the slope, banging and careening, a wild dodge-em course of boulders and burnt stumps. On twilight runs – especially if I have hooked up one or two more dogs than would have been prudent – I find myself reminiscing about 2 a.m. trips through the “buffalo tunnels” of the Farewell Burn behind a big team just coming fresh off their 24-hour layover on the Iditarod. Meeting Robin Jacobson and laughing as he flashed his trademark smile and pointed to his wild fast team and muttered – “these crazy (*&%#*) sonsabitches tried to kill me last night!” and knowing exactly what he was saying.
Gradually, day by day, the dogs settle in, the snow gets deeper after each small layering and the stumps and rocks gradually subside beneath it, not to be seen again until spring. Luckily, so far, no sprains or cuts, nothing but a few aches and twists. Sleds holding up with only the usual minor damage – brush bows, brake claws, stanchion attachments, runner shoes. Early season mushing – yes, it can be done, but really, some days, the question is – must we?
And flying? November takes the cake. This past month there has been almost no flying to be done, and mostly (when I don’t look at the bank account) I have just said “thank goodness for that.” Ice fog rolling off open water, rime on wings and propeller blades, thickening fast (but how fast, and should we turn back or will it get better ahead?), ice beginning to build up on the windshield and – most invisible but most unnerving –the air intake for the engine. Low cloud, gale winds, thin ice or no ice on the lakes below, dusk coming on… Can we land on wheels or should we switch to skis (and thus no brakes)? Jockeying and side-slipping into narrow strips of ice bounded by freezing water. November aviation in the North, and yes, it can be done, but really, again, on some days the question is – must we?
Mushing and flying and my other November vocation these days — cold-weather carpentry — would challenge even the most stalwart jackpine savage at this season. But then there is the sleep. Oh, oh, November sleep. On these long November nights my sleep wraps around me like some delicious drug. Up in our half-loft on the high wall of the big cool room, deep in soft piles of quilts, my sweetie warm and smooth at my side, hour after hour I sleep, night after night. Weary after the day spent mostly outdoors in the cold, hours full of chores and the incessant re-building — fumbling with sharp metal, bare fingers, hammer and saw and straightedge. Twilight mushing, as noted above. And finally sleep — delicious, healing, dark, warm.
The world news lately has not helped my eagerness to embrace daytime November realities. We tune it in nearly every evening, and the voices of the BBC or the CBC bring it to us, beamed down from the satellite, which twelve years ago vanquished the long AM antenna wire strung out between two trees. We listen during the hour of making dinner and washing dishes, then gladly we agree to turn it off and instead eat our dinner to some favorite music.
Slaughter, mayhem, chaos, slander, shouting; hatred and reprisal, and re-reprisal, and the inevitable revenge for the re-reprisal. Fanaticism of every stripe. I stand stunned and speechless there some nights, elbow deep in warm dishwater, hearing it all, knowing my children, and all children, are hearing it all. I have nothing to say, and I have nothing to write about it here that will say anything or mean anything. All I know is that every now and then lately, on these November nights, as I hear the “news” I find myself glancing at the clock above the stove.
Nearly eight, I think to myself. In an hour and a half, maybe an hour forty-five, I can be up in bed. Day done, stove fire set till the 3 a.m. stoke and stroll outside, up there with a book, which Kristen will gently close and set to one side when she climbs up a little later, and finds me already far gone with my pal Morpheus, diving deep, off and away, happy to follow my dreams wherever they lead.
Yes, it would be in November that I would be keen to take a lesson from brother bear. He lowers himself gently into his hole sometime around Halloween, his fat rolled around him like a thick white duvet, his belly stuffed with the last of the lingonberries, crowberries, maybe a final snack of caribou or juicy ground squirrel. He makes his careful mattress of heather and willow twigs (Bears do make a mattress. I’ve seen these dens, and I crawled inside a couple one August when their occupants were long gone. I was with a biologist who knew where they were because he had been tracking grizzlies with radio collars, and he knew where a dozen of them had made their dens.)
He drifts off, his long summer of roaming done. No book even, no dishes to do, no world “news” to try to comprehend. He dives deep, dreaming hard, happy to follow wherever those dreams lead. Months go by. He wakes to spring.
That must be an amazing feeling, to sleep for five months. I don’t want to wake to spring, because I truly would not want to miss the winter. But I would be happy to say “good night” on Halloween some year, and wake to, oh, about the 10th of December. 70 miles of bay all smoothly frozen out front, the snow pillowed deep atop the boulders and stumps on the inland trails, both planes on skis with a wide smooth landing strip marked for them on the ice, clear cold skies and no ice fog. Some year I’d like to try it – just to see how good it could be.