Washington's Birthday

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 9:45am
Snow chased my dreams. It is rare I remember these stories my mind tells while I sleep, rarer, still, that they are more than scraps, jumbled snapshots, overlapping, utterly confusing seasons and places and decades.

This one, or a segment thereof, fell into current time and place, a snow come suddenly, with no week of forewarning, no color-coded, blaring forecasts. It was unnoticed — or more likely in the way of late winter storms, ignored — by anyone to whom I spoke. Strangest of all, my storm prep crises involved the few things that were but are no longer a worry. The solid back door had reverted to a version of its predecessor, little more than boards barely held together with scavenged wire when it was replaced. In my dream it was also being tied shut with a rapidly disappearing coil of cord. I struggled to close the east-facing storm window, thinking, even through my sleep-induced haze, “but I already did this!” as I truly had. 

Then, in the way of dreams, everything morphed into the nonsensical. I was hauling the propane tank up the back steps, into the entry, not a portable grill-size container but the big white tank, a physical impossibility as well as a recipe for certain disaster. Later, a great tree of beached whales, their pale undersides to the sun, rose from the beach, an optical illusion that turned to a great tree of massive but rare and flightless white birds.

All of this was backdrop to awakening to the ambient light of an overcast dawn instead of the new sun, which this year hits me as it clears the horizon. I had to look to be sure the ground was not white with snow. 

Perhaps it is the buried knowledge that it is Washington's Birthday, when we dare say come what may, the back of winter is broken, coupled with the absolute remembrance of a bad snow on the Vernal Equinox, still a month distant.

It has not been a winter of lying awake night after night, through cycles of fretting that the furnace will not come on, then will not turn off, a worry I know related to a sole episode from my childhood and a floor furnace long gone. It has not been one of back-to-back days so cold they threaten to freeze water pipes; I hear a report of a child fallen through the ice on the mainland and wonder if there has been any skating here.

I expect certain flowers to be pushing up through the earth in February, the snowdrops long ago brought from the site of an old farmstead in Rockland County that brave ice, and the daffodils that have no concern for the cold. This year some iris were up weeks ago but that happens as well. Today, though, I looked up through the branches of the tree that has grown too big and was surprised, despite the sun and relative warmth, the stories of flowers already in bloom, to see little buds against the sky.

It was beautiful on Washington’s Birthday the first year I wrote this column, one of those singular memories that returns annually, pushing aside all those holidays that bring wind and cold and snow. The sun came out as the morning wore on and the day ran into others this week, mild and sunny, creating an illusion that it is not really February, that winter is gone, has passed as quickly as summer.

“March” that voice of doom born of experience whispers, a word brushed aside on a day such as this one turned out to be.

The land is solid without being hard, colored with the strange, at-first-glance, monochromatic palette of late winter, when the walls and the fields meld together in the afternoon light. The Neck Road runs generally north and south but it is not straight, rather a series of curves and shallow turns. Structures are not high, they do not loom in the distance, forcing a reality of perspective upon us, I think, recalling the ill-fated turbine that stood on the corner of Neck and West Beach Roads, so high it became visible just north of Scotch Beach, weirdly, wildly, to the east of the barn at Mitchell Farm.

It is the same with fields, the ones we notice heading in one direction fall away just over our collective shoulder going in the other. It was just shy of Mitchell Farm that I stopped, wondering at the clear fields, the mended walls untouched by jumping deer, not thrown by frost heaving the earth as it thaws. The old walls have great boulders that I have had people with no knowledge of them tell me sank over time — as they may well have — but they were also set with intent into the dirt, anchors, by those mindful that the earth in spring could have to it after a deep freeze the swell of the sea.

The road curves more than I realize; this field is before me heading north while I barely notice the open space to the east, a complete reversal of the view from the other direction. “How boring” I can almost hear people think when they look at a map of this single road to the North End, as though they are envisioning a highway, straight and smooth, across the prairie, land falling evenly on either side.  

The sky overhead was blue and pale but I knew the ocean was deep and dazzling, like crinkled satin floating on a breeze at the dock in town. The ocean is near and if I walk just a bit and turn I will likely see the clear water of the New Harbor through some gap in the brush, but by the side of the road my view is of farmland where animals grazed and hay is still cut, and the ridgepole of a barn, an iconic symbol of another era, rides the crest of the land. Here it is the country.