Before the yule
The days are at their shortest, the Solstice is nearly upon us, with the great, silver Cold — or the Before the Yule — Moon immediately following it.
Last night, after a windy, chilly day, the night was settling and bright, the moon shadows of one leafless tree stretched across the yard when I went to the door to call Autumn.
She comes easily when it is optional, and there are hours still before I have to sleep; she seems to know when I am beyond ready for bed, and runs almost to me before veering off to cross the barnyard to the gate to offer one last bark at the horses out there somewhere in the darkness. I was lucky, she did not keep going after an imaginary deer or two, the sound of her “woof” fading as she crossed the fields.
The winter moon can be a glorious thing, it casts a blanching light that seems to slice through the sharp air, it takes a simple tree and creates a magical landscape. It is the stuff of fairytales spun to fill long hours of darkness and create an illusion of safety within four walls of a house.
A life could change upon one turn during one trip into the living wood where trees, naked and pale, take on a nefarious life they did not have while being docile hosts to summer's green.
Even our fields, those free of brush and open to the sky, become otherworldly, their faded winter color subsumed by the moon. They could be clear, or brushed with a layer of sparkling moisture, or even snow. I am never sure about the last of those in the morning, if it was imagined in a half-awake moment or if it vanished with the first strike of morning sun.
A few days ago I looked out onto grass not the verdant of spring but the healthy restored green of fall. The air felt, at first, exceptionally mild, then I realized it was the perfectly normal December weather that surprises me every year.
It is like the sun, returned after clouds, as sharp as the winter moon but casting a light that magnifies rather than dilutes the colors that abound at mid-day.
The horizon is sharp and bright, a far cry from a few days ago when the boat schedule was altered by the uncertainty of the wind and the angry gray-green ocean. Heavy cloud cover came and went, the planes flew and did not, the sun shone as it could and through it all the wind howled.
Today, it is nearly calm, and the gulls are all shiny and bright white at the edge of the blue, blue water that can still be glimpsed through the gap onto the beach. A little dunelet has been forming, a long low hill of sands that meld together as the wind and waves move them, pale quartz and dark magnetite producing a near-purple hue.
There are red berries at the edges of the swamps and there are evergreens, the trees that spend the spring and summer a bit in the shadow of their cousins who come in all shiny and new all over, only to whither and fade and return to bark. The pines and spruces put forth new, lighter feathers of needles and seem almost to be imploring “look at me, I'm growing, too.”
There are two houses between Andy's Way and Mansion Road where there were for years sweet, individual evergreens, slightly different varieties.
I watched them grow, from nursery plants to little trees, to ones brushing each other, and, finally becoming solid walls. We are so impatient with trees, we plant them too close together with too little faith to believe — or imagination to envision — they will flourish.
Then we are loathe to remove them for fear they will die, or because it seems such a sin to cut down a tree, or we have waited too long and they are no longer perfect.
There is a single tall spruce in the corner of my front field. It was a spot where one of my uncles planted trees, another on the long list of things done immediately “after the war” while he tried, to no avail, to convince his Kansas-born wife this was a great place to live.
The trees seemed, always, big to me but when I look at old photos I realize it was only that I was so small. We could not climb them, nor did they produce prize-size cones, like the ones in a friend's yard, planted years earlier by a grandfather not an uncle, and grown considerably larger.
There had been a hundred, my mother said, a staggering amount I thought until she explained the simple — and everlasting — arithmetic of 10 rows of 10 trees.
“We” cut down a few, easy Christmas trees unless you were the one cutting, and trimming, and trying to make a wind-battered trunk stand upright in a pail of water, anchored by stones.
Some of the stand died in place, others were torn from the earth by the shifting winds of Hurricane Bob, exposing a wide but shallow root system, and now it appears there are but a very few remaining and only one of real substance, still reaching to scratch the sky.
They are good New Englanders, all the evergreens, today especially those that greet me when I turn down the Mansion Road, before I come to other trees, their bare bark blazing almost white-gray.
The broken bricks mixed into the fill in my road are bright with the December sunshine that shines on the wreath affixed to the weathered wood of the old shed. The bow tails, red and green, edged with gold, catch the light as they flutter in the wind, and the berries amidst the greenery pop. Even a cardinal shows itself.
There may not be snow in the forecast but it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.