This entire episode was a bit of a surprise. We had been led astray by all those days of relative warmth. Sure, there were a couple of months when clouds and sunless gloom prevailed on the walk to the woodshed but the weather was not biting, cruel, nor inhibiting. This arctic attack was an affront, not unprecedented by anyone of my age but still, a slap in the face.
It used to be this riffraff-removing weather simply was to be confronted with a fond embrace. Yes, I was told we must embrace this, stand tall, put one foot in front of the other, face to the wind and go out as if this was acceptable. It is life in the north and we are great warriors. To not take this tact was to be weak, to be soft, unfit and undeserving. The “bar full of elbows” down at the local watering hole have always said, “How can we know warmth if we have not known the cold?” I am now crying, but not publicly.
My itinerant son, the one living only miles from the arctic, for reasons unknown, and his charming wife have taken to the way of the Athabaskan and live, hunt and dream of nights of camping in the land frozen—- but they might say, wild and alive lands of Alaska. They send pictures to me of whiskey frozen, of tents engulfed in tundra cold. “Here old man, here is vitality, here is place to live and taste the world of a thousand years travelled by hardier men than you.” I cringed.
I listened but try as will, what at the moment is of interest is WARMTH, the comfort of warmth, the delightful sensation of being genuinely comfortable, unhindered in any way by the bite of a winter’s day too cold for a soul like me. Yes, I do enjoy just a reminder of the fact it can be cold and uncomfortable but at this frozen moment, it is warmth I seek.
Just today, in pursuit of wood, I paused and thought of those that came before and strained to wonder if the warmth I have known ever really crept into their lives. What about the early settlers, the Native Americans, the Vikings, the cave dwellers of Europe? Is this easily-to-obtain warmth the invention of modern man?
Because of my creeping age, it is easy to remember the days when in my grandparent’s farmhouse in Grayslake Illinois, the only room being aggressively heated was the kitchen. There are stories from Honey Creek in Sauk County of Ann’s ancestry having to put the potatoes under the bed hoping to prevent freezing in the wintertime. Ray talks of Native settlements on Sunset Lake right here in Portage County and lives they must have led. Warmth? Possibly in the summer with face to the sun on some spring morning, but winter? I just stood there for a moment in the evening asking how, how could they have known warmth? I suppose it is perspective. Maybe it was there but fleeting.
I remember leaning against our teepee at Fort Bridger in Wyoming during a fall gathering feeling the sun, hearing the sound of others chatting and dreaming. I was warm but I also remember being in the same teepee at Bents Fort in Southern Colorado for New Year’s celebration. It was cold at six below. Still, our two thinly-clad children ran around the fire and dove into the Hudson Bay blankets. If asked, and I believe they were, they said they were indeed warm, plenty warm. Perspective I suspect.
In my return to the kitchen, the old wood-burning stove was in full heat as the grandkid had fired it up. He remarked how warm it was and sat close to it absorbing every aspect of that radiant heat. He, like me, will always remember that warmth.
In these cold winter times, this glorious warmth comes from the burning of oak, our once-regal maple and black locust. Recently in a moment of youthful reflection, the kid asked how people in eighteen-eighty living on the great plains of Kansas could stay warm when there was hardly a tree, nothing to burn. We talked of buffalo chips and corn stalks, maybe some cottonwood, sagebrush but realized reveling in warmth may not have been an option. Then came coal, then natural gas and oil, fossil fuel, the onetime endowment of solar power from those millions of years ago.
I turned my back to the kitchen stove under the smell of warm cinnamon rolls and took in the warmth knowing not everyone has had the continual access to the heat I enjoyed. We have had it all. I was thankful. If I could give any wish to a person through all of time, it would be warmth in these times of cold.