December 1983: In a few days it will be Christmas. I have been snowed in for several days here in my cabin in the Ozarks, but that is of no account. Along toward the end of the month, I always go into town and stock up on extra feed for the chickens, dogs, cats, as well as supplies for myself. There's usually a week or more during January when the mile and a half of lane out to the mailbox is impassable to a truck. The weather came a bit early this year, but I was prepared.
The lane is a county road, and after the school bus routes have been cleared, the man who drives the township grader may clear my way. But the machine is undependable and held together with baling wire and Ozark ingenuity, so it may not get here before the snow melts.
A few years ago after another heavy snow, he did clear the lane. It was bitterly cold, so when I heard him coming, I went down to the end of the driveway and invited him in for coffee. He accepted, drove the grader up to my cabin, and turned it off. The second he did so, a look of distress swept his face. He had forgotten that his battery wasn't holding a charge, and now that the engine was off, he'd never get it started. I happened to have a battery charger, so while the coffee percolated, he hitched the grader to the charger. We sat by the wood stove, talking of roads and weather, and by the time we'd emptied the coffeepot, he was able to start the engine. Country living requires cooperation.
Fifteen years ago I was working in a city, living in the suburbs and had an hour's drive to work each day. I grew to loathe winter, dreading the drive on slippery, congested highways. Winter was an enemy I had to fight; but now I am a commercial honey producer and plan my sales trips so that I am off the road in winter. Instead, I repair equipment, label honey jars, prepare for the spring bee season and putter around in the barn or cabin. Winter is no longer an enemy. It has become a time of quiet and peace.
The mailman has not been able to get through on the back roads for a few days, but he's going to try to make it today, so I'll walk down to the mailbox later. It's a journey that I enjoy at any time of the year. The dogs like it, too, and in more benign weather they rush on ahead joyfully. When the drifts are hip high, as they are today where the lane skirts the cliffs of the Jack's Fork River, which runs 250 feet below, I try to urge the dogs to break a path, but they look at me wisely and pretend that they are too loyal and obedient to do anything but walk at my heels. Pantywaist dogs, I scold. That makes them wag their tails happily. Are they my dogs or am I their human?
My son phoned last week from Boston and asked what I was going to do for Christmas. Not much, I admitted; what was he going to do? Well, he certainly hoped to have a tree and said I should too. I protested against cutting a tree and bringing it into the cabin and covering it with little shiny things. He agreed, but suggested decorating one outdoors. So I declared the pine outside the three big windows in the living room to be my Christmas tree and hung suet on it as a gift to the blue jays, the nuthatches and the red-bellied woodpeckers. The woodpeckers already have found it.
The feeder with birdseed on it goes across those three big windows, and the usual winter birds are feeding there—juncos, cardinals, titmice, tree sparrows and finches, both purple and gold. The red-bellied woodpeckers like it, too, and when they come so close, I can see the faint reddish tinge on their bellies. This morning I counted eight Eastern bluebirds upon the power line. They don't come to the feeder because they are not seed eaters, but they congregate where there are other birds, and they feed on the sumac and dogwood berries that they find at the edge of the field.
Inside, the dogs and cats are luxuriating in the warmth of the wood stove. The public radio station outdoes itself in programming during Christmas week. Last night I heard Bach's B Minor Mass. It feels snug and cheerful and peaceful here.
I was supposed to go to a meeting today of a group concerned about a proposal to develop the Jack's Fork River for recreational purposes—an environmental, economic and personal disaster. But the meeting has been called off. Winter on the banks of the Jack's Fork has canceled it and mocks the making of plans. It's not a proper time of year for social activism anyway, but a time for privacy and indwelling, a time for gifts and gratitude for good things that are here now.
I see a white-breasted nuthatch in my Christmas tree. He has spotted the suet I've hung there for him and the other birds, and he has seen the red-bellied woodpeckers feeding on it. It won't be long until his curiosity and need to eat overcome his caution. I'm glad I'll be here to see that. Witnessing it will be a Christmas gift in return.