Friday, January 09, 2015

Another winter reveler

In Wednesday's post, I all but nominated Thoreau as the patron saint of winter. Who else, I asked, made a better companion than this hiker of frozen swamps and admirer of frost?

It was only later that another name came to mind, a writer who could almost be seen as a bright mirror image of Thoreau, another man with hermitic tendencies, a love of nature, and an appreciation of wintry landscapes. But whereas Thoreau is prickly, this man's manner is genial, wry, even puckish: E. B. White.

White's descriptions of the wintry Maine countryside, often sent in letters back to friends in New York City, make the cold and snow seem as enchanting as a Currier and Ives print, or a Christmas carol sleigh ride. Here he is on New Year's Eve, 1937, writing to his wife, Katharine:
I don't know when I've had a better time, sick or well. If you were here it would be perfect. Had a good night's sleep, and this morning am almost whole--no more throat. The snow stopped at nightfall and this morning is bright, clear, cold and gorgeous--the harbor (half frozen over) shining in the sun; the little boys, too, shining in the sun. . . . . A country town on a snowy morning is agreeably deceptive--it leads one to believe there can be no bad in the world--even the dogs feel the extra gaiety and goodness.
Now despite my origins, I'm city folk through and through . . . but as I look out my back window onto our small backyard (the first time I've had a backyard as an adult), there is something about the pristine sweep of snow, overlooked by a benevolent birch tree, that calls to mind country pleasures, and country quiet, both best enjoyed in winter.

Here's White writing about a cold spell at the tail end of winter, from a letter of March 18, 1922:
This is really a most cheery and exciting time of year--the world holds its breath, anticipating the great event. Farm animals stand motionless against the mows, which at this season are gutted all round the base from being eaten into so much; country schools hold session with doors tight shut and windows; streams, silent beneath a thin crisp coat of ice, throw back the mild grey glare of the sky; cats, hunting in brown fields, are poised in the midst of motion, as though caught by the cold; and sad-eyed loungers at the cross-road inns stand blankly up against the outworn bar, awaiting the provocation to spit. A most cheery time of year.
White's letters, as much as those of any writer's I've read, are performances: feeling peeks through, especially when, as in the top letter, he's writing to his wife, but in the main they're deliberate and polished. This letter is a good example: the long series of observations of nature under cold has all the clarity and rhythm of finished prose. Try saying that line about the "sad-eyed loungers" aloud; it's a marvel.

As the mercury declares its intention to plunge yet again--like a high-diver, it climbed only briefly in order to show off, in its case with some lovely snow--I'll leave you with one last description, of a bitter late cold snap, described in a letter from April 4, 1954:
Blowing a living gale here from the NW, and the temperature this morning early was 10 degrees. All water pails frozen solid, pasture pond solid, all doors resisting all attempts at ingress and egress, frost-proof valve on outside water line frozen, master of house all alone and frozen, barnyard sunny and full of little black-faced lambs and their mammas. I have spent most of my time, since getting here, keeping the kitchen stove hooked up to fever pitch. Coldest 4th of April since 1879. Am living on a straight diet of rye whiskey and Franco-American spaghetti.
Rather than rye, I'm opting for coffee, and it's ready, so I'll sign off. Stay warm, folks.

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