Notes From Away: Two Places
Thursday, December 29, 2016 11:31 AM
ROCKPORT. “Will there be snow?”
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, teaching law for part of each year in China, home in Maine for the New Year.
The children — alas, but thank goodness, but really alas, no longer children — always ask about the snow as we drive up from New York, usually about the time we cross the Piscataqua Bridge and come into Maine.
In the winter, we usually arrive in the darkening afternoon after some seven hours’ drive and discover the house just where we left it at the end of the summer. The key works in the lock, the steam hisses and clanks in the radiators, the lights go on in one room after another as we lug our bags up the familiar stairs. “What in the world is in here? This bag weighs a ton!”
The book I was last reading when we left for Shanghai a few months ago is lying open and face down on the bedside table. Next to the book is a spare set of glasses, and a smooth stone that spent eons of time on the shore of a small island in Penobscot Bay.
We are fortunate to have two places — a place in Shanghai and a place in Maine — and there is always the excitement of the return to each.
Maine uses different muscles.
Going down into the cellar to fetch up the firewood, I have to brush cobwebs from my face and stoop under a low ceiling made necessary by the bedrock below. The canvas tote bag holds only four or five logs, well split and dry from having spent decades inside. Several shuffling stooped-over trips are needed to replenish the fireplace upstairs. I will feel that unusual exercise in my back and shoulders the next morning.
Later that evening, the family is as delighted as our Paleolithic ancestors must have been by the red coals and the flickering blue and yellow flames, and for the time being we are no more conscious or concerned than those proto-humans would have been about the carbon dioxide rushing up into the night sky. The woodpile down in the cellar, though, is almost depleted.
We forgot last summer to hammer in the stakes along the driveway to guide the winter plowman, and now the earth is frozen. But my mother lent me a tool that my father had used, a thin steel spike about a foot long, and I used the blunt end of an axe to drive it into the frozen ground, just enough to make a hole for the stakes.
Holding the bare metal in my hand reminded me that there were work gloves in the garage, and I found them on the shelf under the back window, stiff and cold. Kneeling down on the sharp stones, hefting the axe in one rough-gauntleted hand, pounding metal through frozen ground, my body told me, again, that I was not in the city, not in Shanghai, but in Maine.
Walking behind the garage, I see a rowboat, hull skyward and covered by a plastic tarp and a matting of leaves. It has been years since she has been hull down in Rockport Harbor or rowed out to Indian Island. I reposition a couple of the bricks to hold the tarp down in the wind. I see upside down on the stern the dinghy’s name, which amused a legally trained skipper: Either Oar.
Turning back toward the house, I can see the dark rectangle of earth and a few matted stalks that mark the garden plot. There in summer flourished a delight for the bees with their ultraviolet vision, and a delight to more limited human vision as well, with exuberant colors that could have been painted by Monet. But the garden in winter is more a painting by Brueghel, bereft of color except for greys and browns, framed by bare branches and a low medieval sky.
Here in the summer we often say to ourselves: “Remember how cold it was last Christmas?” And in the winter, especially in the morning if a window has been open a crack during the night, we sometimes say: “Remember how warm it was last summer.”
I suppose Maine for us is two places: the Maine of winter and the Maine of summer.
Today the air, for late December, is surprisingly gentle. The temperature is in the high 40s and the warmish breezes are confusing the cedars. Is such unseasonal warmth a mere vagary of the weather, something that could have happened centuries ago? Or is it a harbinger of permanent change in our climate?
A thin skein of smoke rises from the chimney and disappears aloft.
Colder weather, and snow, is predicted for the end of the week, just in time for the New Year. Snow that transforms the world into another place entirely.