the Latest

Author’s edition of Native Echoes, my book with the Winter Heart

Now, in these frozen times, is when my quietest book speaks.

Native Echoes is little known but well-loved by those who find it.  The Journal of Literary Journalism calls it, “A quiet, contemplative work that offers profound insights about the power of the great natural forces that surround us and shape our hearts and spirits.” It is a book of the passage of seasons, and the season it honors most is winter.  I have arranged for Wolfnordog books to offer a special discount on the author’s edition, printed on richer paper and slightly enlarged from the version you can get through bookstores.

Here is one of my favorite pieces:

 

COPSE

It freezes where they abode.

It snows where they abode.

It storms where they abode.

It is cold where they abode.

—Delaware saga

         The horizon is a line across a phantom sky. The windblown fields stretch towards infinity. Fragments of cornstalks — brittle shards —stick through the snow and bend and rattle, and the wind is the largest thing, the only thing.

         In the distance, copses of trees stand like battlements — isolated, alone, small islands against the prairie sky. On the far horizon, purpling night has started its descent, too soon. There will be no sunset, for there has been no sun, only pale light — weak, and without source. Snowblown, blinding, aluminum, it leaves without event, giving way to dark.

         The wind rises up, sensing an ally. It is filled with banshee howls, screams, and distant laughter. Amid the copses single lights go on in farmhouses, miles apart. One, then another, as if in signal.

         Fingers of snow drift across the road. “Lose the road, lose your life,” the old farmers said, and the snow is drifting, drifting.

         Attention takes a fine edge, now. There is no room for error. A man was found last week but a half a mile from his car, frozen. Two weeks they had searched. A gust of wind had revealed his hand, as if clutching, or waving.

         It is the swing that stops me. It hangs and twists by a single strand from the arm of a great oak, far back amid a shadowy copse. Behind it, almost lost in darkness, I see the house, abandoned, swaybacked, empty. I should not stop; this is not a night to challenge. But something cries out for witness.

         The wind screams in outrage as I step outside. The shadows of the trees grasp at me as I walk.

         Movement is hard. My steps punch through the frozen crust. I sink to my knees. The wind lashes my face; my chest heaves. Snow burrows in at my ankles, sending waves of pain as the icy wetness cuts the flesh, then begins to freeze. So little time, so little time.

         The door is heavy — rude planks covered by torn tarpaper — wedged half-open. Drifts have heaved against it in a frozen wave. In a weathered eave a wasps nest rattles, grey and ragged.

         I push hard. The door scrapes open. A froth of snow whisks across the floor. Wolf tracks, or dog, mark a single line to a far corner. Scat covers the floor. Is he here?

         Holes have been punched in the walls. The windows are gone. A sink hangs from its plumbing, kicked, perhaps, or hammered. In a corner a stove stands covered with dust and mouse droppings. Its oven door is open, a cry into the night.

         On the floor a book is flapping. The pages turn and rustle in the wind, then settle for a moment. I touch it with my foot. It is brittle; pages detach and scatter. One flies up against a wall, where it flutters, like a dying bird, desperate to escape.

         Through an empty window I can see the swing, twisting in the winter dark. The wood is grey as bone, and frozen.

         That someone thought there was a life to be lived here. That for one brief moment hands were joined in common effort, and from each hammer blow, each chop of ax, rang out a song of hope.

         I see them rise before me. The father, planting shelterbands of trees and planning yields and harvests. The mother, at the stove, cooking dinners, baking bread. And the children, at the swing, called in for dinner from summer play.

         Did they have bicycles? Did they ride horses down the road to that next far house among that next far copse, that next small island in this eternal flatness? Did they camp out on warm summer nights, counting the stars and finding messages in an owl’s call? Did cicadas sing them to sleep?

         Did their father take them aside, in a moment of fine hope, and tell them, “Someday this will all be yours,” and mean it as a gift? And did they sit there, listening, thinking in the simple colors of their childhood, how good it would be to someday work this land? Or did they, with each visit to a city or some nearby town, say, “Someday I will leave.”

         And what of the night that it was decided? At the table, amid long silences, who was it that said, “Enough, we cannot go on.” Was it the woman, wide-eyed and hysterical from too many days alone in this too awful space? Or was she the happy one, hanging clothes in the summer air and gathering her children to her in the evening, while her husband sat vacantly, adding up figures, projecting yields, cursing bankers and God? Did he one day walk in and say, “It is finished. There will be no more.”?

         Or was it something darker that broke their will? Is there, beneath these snows, a tiny grave, a tragedy too great to be borne? Or did they all, like the pages of the book, simply turn frail, and blow away?

         I step among the boards. It is wrong to be here. There is no humility in this defeat, only shame. This is life that wants to be forgotten.

         The darkness has risen now, and looms across the land. There is only the great cold, and the shadows, and the wind. Whispers of snow have almost hidden the road. The copse, the house, are disappearing. Darkness is folding them in, like sleep, like death.

         I retrace my steps. Already my marks are being erased; they, too, have lost their shape.

         I drive in silence, listening to the wind. In the distance, a church stands lonely in an empty field. It is small, white, boarded up against the winter dark. By its side, a tiny graveyard sits inside a wire fence. There are no tall monuments — such presumption would be unseemly — only a few low stones poking humpbacked through the swirling snow.

         Far behind, almost lost in shadow, a single cross stands half buried in the winter night. The wind swirls angrily around it, as if to hide it from my view.

         I squint my eyes, as if there is something I have not yet seen. But there is no life anywhere — only the wind, and the dark, and the stark arm of the single cross, protruding, beckoning, like a frozen hand above the drifting snows.

I hope you will consider buying this author’s edition of Native Echoes.  I think you will find it to be a wonderful, contemplative book for these dark winter days.

Homage to the “Polar Vortex”, or as we used to call it, “The Death Spike.”

Those of you who have never experienced it have no idea.  It used come to our northern Minnesota home once a year, usually in early January.  No one can explain what 40 below zero fahrenheit means.  Nothing moves, but the stillness is lethal.  I wrote about it in my book, Native Echoes.  I encourage you to find it and read it if you’d like to understand something of what this passage through winter’s most unforgiving darkness is all about.

I’ve published this piece before on this site, but it is worth putting up once again during this time of winter showing its most brutal face:

URN

How I go shivering. . .

Where is the sun hiding his fire?

— Iroquois ritual chant

We have not seen zero for days. Daylight is a brief spasm between darknesses. The sun is wrong and evil; like a father without love, grinning.

All the news now is of deaths. On icy roads, in frozen houses, in fires that flashed from desperate hands trying to stoke a stove to warmth.

The old are helpless, trapped. The deer are starving. There are no birds anywhere.

Midnight. I step outside. There is a crazed brightness in the sky, like the gaze of one about to die. The moon is remorseless — an adder’s eye, watching for movement, looking for death.

Trees explode, their frozen sap no longer able to endure. The lake rends and thunders beneath the frozen snows. Dogs rise from their burrows and howl in frenzy at the sounds. Their voices break the night like glass.

Forty below. Morning light, and pale. I stop at a small store beside the highway. It is a country place, part gas station, part commissary, sparsely stocked. Old men sit on cases of Coke and boxes of motor oil, telling stories of the cold.

“I need to make a call,” I say.

They gesture. A back room, tires and cardboard boxes, a pay phone hanging on the wall. A man is on the phone — thirties, ashen, missing teeth. His girlfriend smiles weakly at me. She is hunched in a corner. Their jackets are thin.

“Long or short,” I ask. I do not wish to stop for long in so great a cold.

“Our car’s stalled,” she says. “We’re on our way back from Winnipeg. My brother died.”

I soften, deferring to death.

She begins to weep. “It’s so far. We don’t know what to do. We live by Detroit. The car just died. It was my brother’s.”

I offer consolation, directions. I would help but I must go the other way.

She cries openly. I am the first who cared. The old men are cackling in the other room, full of themselves and their stories.

“His ashes are in the car. God, it’s so cold.”

Her boyfriend is fumbling with a crumpled paper, trying to find some number. “Where the hell are we?” he blurts. “What town?”

She looks at me, a request in her eyes.

“Shall we get him?” I say.

She looks around. The crudeness of the old men has no reverence. “I just can’t leave him out there in this cold.”

Her friend is shouting into the receiver. “I can’t wait five goddamn hours!”

She nods. We go out. The snow growls and groans beneath our feet. The sky is strange, copper. The car sits, naked and red, against a drift of snow.

She has no gloves. The key will not work. We bang on a door, trying to break its icy seal. The wind gusts once, cuts our faces with a thousand knives. Our lips crack. She is crying. “Your tears will freeze,” I say. It is not a joke.

In the back I see the urn.

Our breath rages from our mouths. We try other doors. I try to light a match to warm the key. The wind is too strong; the match blows out. My hands freeze. She is staring in the car. “We’ve got to get him,” she screams. Her sobs are frantic, filled with desperation. The cold is lacerating. We bleed pain.

“Just go in,” I shout. “I’ll get it open.”

She runs back to the store. I pull my hat lower. My eyelashes are covered with ice. I kick at the car and curse. Heat is ebbing from me. My legs sting; my toes are numb. The sun hangs lifeless in the frozen sky.

I feel a movement. The seal gives way. With senseless fingers I pry the door from its jamb. She sees, comes running. Past me, she dives in, throwing aside blankets, maps, fast food wrappers. She grabs the urn and pulls it out, runs back, talking to it like a mother to a foundling child.

I follow, uncertain. Her friend is still shouting into the phone. The old men are still laughing among themselves.

She has huddled on a box. Her back is toward me. She is cradling the urn and speaking softly.

I walk quietly toward the door. What gods live in a land like this, where the cold is so great that we must comfort the dead?