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Cold Comfort

woodcut graphic of treesillustration by Becca thorne,


When we first moved up here, I used to believe that the people I heard complaining about winter’s length, and particularly winter’s lightlessness, were malingerers, nabobs of negativity – chronic lightweights deeply entrenched in the hapless pattern of seeing the cup as being half empty instead of half full. I looked at them as callow youth looks at an aging person and believes or at least suspects that the physical diminishment of age must surely be due at least in part to some sort of character flaw, so unimaginable is that diminishment to the youth, in his or her full strength, and having known only its increase, day after day and year after year.

All I saw, my first several winters, everywhere I looked, was beauty.

I still see winter’s beauty, in every glimpse, but like those old-timers who pined for sun and lamented its absence, I too miss it deeply, desperately now, in winter, and have come to believe that winters up here can have a debilitating effect: that they are like concussions, wherein the first one or two seem to have no lasting or even negative effects, until suddenly – or so it seems – you wake up after your eight or ninth, or tenth or eleventh, and have difficulty remembering your name, and do not always recognize the face in the mirror.

Scientists, of course, are discovering the neurochemical and physiological causes of these traumas, these debilitations – serotonin disruptions, seasonal affective disorder, and so on – and there are drugs and medicines and treatments that can be prescribed now to try to counter the brute force of the phenomenon – sunlamps, vitamins, Prozac, and strategic trips to the Caribbean.

More and more each winter, however, when I catch myself in the throes of lightlessness – staring slack-jawed out a dusty window at the dim light, unblinking and incognizant of any one coherent thought – I find myself understanding the biological adaptations of not just the species that migrate but the bears, with their deep sleeps of hibernation. It seems to me often, in winter’s midst, that I have entered a quasi hibernation myself – a mental hibernation – and I am reminded yet again of how closely we are all wedded to this landscape, shaped and sculpted by it and always at some level attentive to it, as it in turn is attentive to us.

When the sun does come, our spirits surge like those of children, and for the few hours or even minutes that it might be present, we wander out into its beautiful blue embrace, staring up and out at such rare and magnificent illumination, saying things like “Wow!” and “Geezo-peezo!” over and over again; and we can feel deeply, intimately, the puppet-string leap and pull of our bloodstream’s chemicals being scrambled and rearranged, bestirred and invigorated, awakening even if only briefly, and become refreshed.

We might invest thirty or forty days in a row of lightlessness in exchange for a few moments of such blue-sky brilliance – sometimes the sun and the blue-sky against the snowy mountains remain visible for a whole afternoon – but it is almost worth it (when the sun’s out, it is worth it) and I have to wonder if, while slumbering in their ice caves, the bears are aware of that brief appearance: if, even as they sleep, their blood lifts and their spirits surge. I wonder if the sun’s appearance somehow makes it down even through the shell of their snow chambers, bathing them in a warmer, golden glow, as opposed to the usual dull blue light of winter. Sometimes the bears will even climb up and out of their snow caves and wander around for a while, like sleepwalkers, even in the dead of winter – no one’s really sure why – and I have to wonder if these brief rousings are somehow tied to the infrequent return, or appearance, of the low, cold winter sun.


By mid January, the deer are already beginning to look tired. They are not yet thin or gaunt, but to a close observer, and one familiar with their daily appearances, the weariness is clearly evident; and though it must have been building, it seems to me that their fatigue has appeared from almost out of nowhere, in the same manner that sometimes, early in the fall, after a hard south wind and heavy overnight rain, the ground is pasted and littered with the red and yellow leaves of the season and the trees’ branches bare, whereas only the previous day the trees had retained their brilliant, burning colors and the ground its somber brown. You know intuitively that whatever has arrived on that overnight wind has been a long time in coming, but what it looks like to our sleepy eyes is that all was one day a certain way and then different the next. As if a hundred small things make no difference to the world, really, and are unobservable, but that one hundred and one small things do, and are.

Sometimes in January, that one extra inch of snow arrives, or that one extra unit of something, and though I do not believe it breaks the wild spirit of the deer, things are different that next day, and a certain burning light is gone from their dark, wet eyes. There is a new slowness to their movements, and a pause, a studied gathering of energy before they commit to any one movement. It’s particularly noticeable in an animal in which such gathering or hesitancy had not been previously witnessed.

This is the only thing, the only one, that tempers the rich feeling of bounty, of joy and beauty and peace, that accompanies a heavy January snowfall: the awareness that what to me is simple, exquisite, calming beauty – a blizzard piling up – spells trauma and hardship for another.

It’s going to snow, whether you want it to or not. And it’s going to be beautiful, whether you want it to snow hard or not. And there is really just only that one temperance, the concern for the deer, that keeps you, in January, from fully embracing the heaviest snowfalls, and walking out into the forest and looking up at the boughs of the snowy trees and asking for more, please more, even as it seems already that all the snow in the world is falling – still more, please.

It closes in. You stare at things longer, in January. Seen from the window of my writing cabin, the frozen gray bare limbs of the alder bower are like a screen, a maze, that transfixes the eye, and hence, the brain.

The picnic table right outside the window, beneath the arc of those bare limbs, is piled high with snow. The same pattern, same variation in shelter provided by the arrangement of those branches, has resulted in a differential of snowfall that’s landed on the picnic table’s top so that now, several feet into winter, it appears as if there is a person sleeping on top of that table, a young person, warm in a down sleeping bag or beneath all those many blankets, with his or her head tucked down into the bag for warmth. In the loneliness of winter, such a thought is comforting, and I like looking up from my pages in the morning to see that sleeping form, comfortable, resting, just on the other side of the window.


Nothing sleeps forever. The river reawakens first, in February, stretching and cracking and groaning and glowing sapphire green as the ice softens and fills with warming water from below, the ice acting like a magnifying lens through which that returning sun strafes; and after the rivers begin to break apart and stir and then flow once again, the land begins to awaken – and after the land awakens, then the plants begin to stir, the trees and grasses and forbs, and after the vegetation awakens come last the animals that had been sleeping within that sleeping earth, spilling from their burrows and caves like boulders loosened from the frost’s grip on a frozen hillside, warmed by the climbing sun, and tumbling downslope and back out into the world. If that in itself is not the grand pattern of story, the progression and movement of some larger narrative, some larger meaning gotten from the assemblage of the many individual parts and scenes, then what would you call it instead?

Nothing can sleep forever. No matter how rock-hard the frozen earth was in January, in February the ground begins to soften, right after the rivers open and begin to move again, and right after the first ducks and geese return, looking for those early patches of open water, quacking and honking and braying like donkeys, so that to one who did not understand perhaps the cant of the sun and the incredible power of that increased angle of its incidence, and the increased force of radiation, it might seem that it was the powerful stride of the geese’s honking alone that was softening that frozen ground to jelly, to mud – the ground softening finally, and loosening, stretching and bending up into sluggish oceanlike waves, swales and troughs that oscillate like the living thing the earth has become, not just across fields and pastures but up and down the dirt roads, bunching them up into corduroy washboards.

As the land awakens, coming back to life, these swales and troughs pitch our trucks so that we bob up and down like small boats in the crossing of them. The loads of firewood we carry in the back for added traction on the ice fly up into the air, crossing each swell, before raining back down scattered and repositioned, thumping hard when they land. You can hear such thumping anywhere in the valley, at any time of day, in February – new swales appearing almost anywhere overnight to surprise the habituated and inattentive driver. Those falling-back-to-earth loads of firewood (it’s fun to watch in your rearview mirror when such a wave catches you by surprise: you feel the lift and rise, the sudden weightlessness, and glance in the mirror, and sure enough, it’s like a magic trick: all your firewood is up in the air behind you, hanging and floating for a second), when they finally land – settling right back down into the bed of your truck, in only slightly rearranged fashion – set up a tympanic clattering that echoes through the woods and drums loudly on those very same warped and frost-heaved roads that first gave rise to the drumming.

(Later in the year, when the awakening is complete, the softened roads will finish their yawn and will be stretched back out all the way flat again; and again you will understand that almost everything has some sort of life, or the semblance of a life, through story, and that almost everything has some sort of motion, and as such, some sort of narrative…)

And though the bears, off in the distance and still asleep in the earth as if entombed, are not quite reawakened in February, these bumpings and thunderings must surely be communicating themselves to the bears’ dreams, the pitched and jouncy loads of our firewood and our bang-hollering trucks drumming down through the tight skin of icy earth, the bears picking up on those sounds with the sonar of their sleeping bodies, as the enormous whales are said to be able to hear the ocean-stirred vibrations of distant drilling rigs and buzzing motorboats hundreds or thousands of miles distant, or even, perhaps, the oar of a single kayaker as the blade enters the dark water, a distant whisper spoken in a language that is a complete mystery to our own slack-bodied selves.

To those sleeping underground, perhaps the sounds of the stirring world above enter their dreams in a jumbled state and incorporate themselves into the bear’s dreams in such fantastic reassemblage as to create the most amazing dreams and stories imaginable. Perhaps the bears and other earthbound, sleeping creatures dream of a sky filled with floating pieces of firewood, neatly sawn stumps hanging in the air, drifting, waiting to come back down to earth, waiting and waiting…

Rick Bass is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including the short story collections The Watch and The Lives of Rocks, and his memoir, Why I Came West. He lives with his family in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana.

Excerpts from The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana. Copyright © 2009 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.


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