Seeing Shadows

Photo: Stephen G. Maka Antlers in Snow

ON ONE OF THE COLDEST AFTERNOONS of the winter just past, the temperature well below zero, I looked up while feeding my chickens and saw a full moon the color of my kitchen walls. The paint company calls this “Touch of Nectar,” as if the sweet secretions of flowers were pale orange, or peach milkshakes of the gods. The moon had just risen above the snow-laden spruce and balsam firs behind the old farmhouse where I live in a sparsely populated corner of Vermont known as “The Northeast Kingdom.” Its sharp, distilled light was such an unexpected antidote to the weak sun disappearing on the other side of the sky that it stopped my rush to get out of the bone-chilling cold.

I stood and watched the moon for several minutes, rolling the title of a poem by W.S. Merwin — “The Cold Before the Moonrise” — over and over in my mind, as if it alone could capture the moment’s significance. Like the words “touch of nectar,” the title unraveled a string of associations that imposed other worlds on what I was seeing. I thought of the word “country” in the poem and braced myself to go back in the house and hear the evening news: U.S. soldiers massing in the Middle East, growing conflict over a nuclear weapons program in North Korea, American citizens presumed guilty and imprisoned by their own government without access to a lawyer.

This winter, almost any randomly tuned-in moment of the news made clear the Bush Administration’s determination to dominate the world. Yet when I turned the radio off, my anger was difficult to reconcile with what I saw out the window: the soft, white curves of hayfields; the mountains looking airbrushed with snow. I kept asking myself how I could be absorbed by the aesthetics of landscape when I’m governed by an executive branch hell-bent on empire. It was too easy, as Merwin’s poem implies, to identify solely with nonhuman nature and disassociate myself from the nation that has always been my country:

It is too simple to turn to the sound
Of frost stirring among its
Stars like an animal sleep
In the winter night
And say I was born far from home
If there is a place where this is the language may
It be my country

Ever since I thought of this poem while watching the moon rise over the trees, I’ve been possessed by that moment and increasingly puzzled by the relationship between the poem and my experience of the physical world. Did I think of “The Cold Before the Moonrise” simply because its situation resembled my own? Or did the lyric itself — or perhaps my previous response to its language — make some subconscious connection to my emotions upon seeing the moonrise in the frigid air?

The difference is crucial to reconciling my wonder at the contours and creatures outside my windows with my desire to engage distant political tragedies. My association of Merwin’s poem with my awe at the moonrise may have been brought about at least partially by the way poetry titles an experience, thereby representing it, like a name for a color of paint. But beyond representation, which artificially draws lines around landscapes and our experiences in them, “The Cold Before the Moonrise” addresses how my desire to distance myself from the government collided with my pleasure in the full moon and its warm light on the winter landscape.

By conveying the quality of an experience, the poem avoids simple allegiance to an idea — being “born far from home” — inspired by phrases like “Frost stirring among its / stars like an animal sleep”. Instead, the poem’s final two lines suggest an alternative to the alienation from my government that I, like many Americans, now feel. There’s a different notion of homeland, the final lines say, that doesn’t impose abstractions such as nation — like an empire does — on the particular places we inhabit. This home is found in attentiveness to language, in a habit of evoking what it’s like to be in the physical world. It’s a country that asks its citizens for allegiance only to the sounds and images of their own experience.

“The Cold Before the Moonrise” reminded me, in a time of increasing focus on far-off news, that the possibility for reconciling my passion for the land with my political dissatisfaction resides where I do. It also alerted me to the limitations of my perspective on the woods, fields, and lakes beyond my door. If, at the end of my first full winter in the Kingdom, I were to write about this place with the same language and agrarian eye I had acquired growing up in the upper Midwest, I would fail to capture anything but the peculiarities of my own vision. My words might resemble the sprawling house of the “summer people” down the road, empty ten months a year. To not acknowledge the long blue shadows of bare maples on bright January days, or the sense of being encapsulated in ice when the windows freeze completely over, would be like visiting only in more hospitable seasons.

My eyes were repeatedly drawn to images like these this winter. It was difficult, at first, to disabuse them of quaint associations. But once I experienced the months of low sun they represent, the long shadows and floral ice patterns on my panes were no longer beautiful in a picturesque way. The icicles hanging from the eaves of my house, that resembled a fairy-tale monster’s teeth in November, became true obstacles as they grew. The piles of powdery snow reached the windowsills. A northern winter — like the Bush Administration’s single-minded empire building — is so hard to endure because no single moment, no one event, can capture its cumulative ferocity. The relentless cold and the ceaseless warnings about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” that still haven’t been found numbed my ability to recognize how extreme the weather and the rhetoric really were.

“SNOW,” a PALESTINIAN FRIEND of mine once said, “is aristocratic.” He meant that for someone who struggles daily to stay warm and dry it couldn’t be beautiful. My wife and I were blessed this winter to have three cords of maple, beech, and birch to burn in our woodstove and a roof that doesn’t leak. We still had to worry about the water pipes in the cellar freezing, though. Like the arctic air that seeped through the loose stone foundation, the kind of beauty outside wasn’t fixed in a Rockwell moment. Nor was it personal, though I’m tempted to think the single digit temperatures and snow that descended intermittently until April 25th taught patience.

In contrast to the warring words that poured from the radio all winter, the land conveyed no sense of urgency. The red-winged blackbirds and dark-eyed juncos — the Northeast Kingdom’s earliest spring migrants — didn’t return until late March, when there was food enough to feed them. They know in their bones that the problem of an inhospitable climate won’t ever be solved. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t wish warm air in from the south. Even when it finally came, the snowpack took weeks and a hard rain to melt completely. By then, the war was more than words.

Here in the Kingdom, this year’s maple-sugaring season coincided almost perfectly with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I remember driving to town on the third day of the war, seeing smoke rising from the chimneys of the sugarhouses where the maple sap is boiled into syrup. Accompanied by the news of battles and civilian deaths, this sight was bittersweet: a distillation of my complicity and comfort all winter while I criticized the president’s rush to brute force. If there had been no gas available to fuel my fifteen-mile drive to town for groceries, would I still have opposed invading Iraq? If I had needed to choose between shivering in our poorly insulated house and supporting the war, what would I have done? Given such choices, I would have seen winter here differently. It would’ve worn an unremittingly pernicious face. Staring into this face makes the consequences of American imperialism local and personal, moving me to act and speak against the Bush administration’s aggression more than the news ever could.

As the grass greens more intensely every day now and wrinkled leaves unfurl on the brambles, conversations revolve less and less around the war George W. Bush has told us is over. Everyone is desperate to be outside and anxious, perhaps, to forget what destruction has been wrought in our name. The recent ice-out on the local lakes has abetted this short-term memory. It means trout rising, loons filling the night with laughter, the almost forgotten sound of water giving way to the bow of a canoe — all this after an instant when warmth gained critical mass, as if the world was shouting, sea change.

I wish I could make the spring thaw into a metaphor for political change, as journalists do so unselfconsciously when they make statements like “There’s been a warming of relations between the U.S. and North Korea.” Of course, warming is completely detached from physical reality in this context. When it’s repeated this way ad nauseam, it gradually loses its resonance with landscape.

So, I keep looking at the Kingdom for words to use, not just as symbols, but also as ways to think about my political choices. In this place that’s already called a country — where the head of state is the land itself — I see the shadows of the still-bare maples getting shorter on the ground with each passing day. As they retreat, the Bush administration’s shadowy purpose in Iraq advances like the blue sketches of limbs lengthened on the early winter snow. The more the shadows here shorten, the more impatient I become for summer, for the possibility that the people in the places my government has conquered feel safe enough to notice the shadows in their own country now receding.

A native of the upper Midwest, Douglas Haynes now lives and writes in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He teaches writing at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. His essays have recently appeared in Birding and