Winter is a dark and reckless thing.

Where I got this sentence, I don’t know. It recurs at some point every year after snow has fallen. More than six decades of relentless Januarys and it’s almost all I have to say about winter. What else is there? Winter is blank snow. It’s a torpor. It’s an insulator. It’s the yin of summer’s yang. It’s spruces frozen in the distant glitter of the January sun. It’s nature’s living figure of cosmic emptiness. It’s death.

It’s bitter. I remember reading long ago of 18th century settlers fleeing Maine-ward to escape oppressions in Massachusetts and many of them bouncing back because of “extremely harsh winters.”

Extremely harsh winters.

As early as the 1970s we were watching the winter degree-day numbers rise, year over year, and growing antsy about global warming. Even then. In the winter of 1983, it hardly snowed at all in Portland. Life consisted mainly of clambering over spits of sidewalk ice. That February I overheard a young bespectacled man, newly emigrated from points south, pretend to shrug off his visiting friend’s complaints about the cold. In his confident, wise-beyond-his-years mid-Atlantic accent he explained, “We’ve had a really hard winter this year.”

I raised my eyebrows. My native-Portland companion returned the same quizzical look. We knew something about “extremely harsh winters,” and this had not been it.


My siblings and I used to jump off the roof of our ranch house in Cape Elizabeth into snow. It snowed that deep, and often. We skated on Great Pond in December. It was snow-covered in February. My father kept a log of ice-out dates; I remember them being usually around the beginning of April. In recent decades, I’ve been told, Great Pond often doesn’t freeze at all. Ice is going out of New England lakes and ponds nine days earlier than the historical average.

No doubt, what you call “a really hard winter” is relative. In Shanghai, my Chinese colleagues thought it was hard when sidewalk puddles froze on a January night. An “extremely harsh winter” is something else. The settlers on St. Croix Island in the winter of 1604 experienced full harsh. Half of them died. Full bitterness. The full darkness and recklessness.

You can still sense the outer edges of harsh here in 2020, if you’ve looked out the window at enough shadows and enough blizzards for enough years. The yards and driveways that look cozy and trim with pine needles and golden tamaracks and still-green grass in October, turn Christmas-white for a day or two in December. Then the snowbanks start to decay, and bleak and hollow follow like a hammer blow. The sweet autumn havens disappear, and in their places rise kerosene-smelling, blear-eyed, lonely chunks of interplanetary grit disguised as human dwellings. Not every day, but some. Enough. Even the inside of your own house can feel like it’s inside the shadow of a crater on the moon. In February, “Winter sun / with its / glass gloves / wrings the geranium’s / neck / slowly / slowly,” so said Kenneth Frost who lived in brumal Wilton. Worst of all is the hangover of waking-up March.

All you can do is watch shadows crawl across the driveway; the blizzards obliterate it, the blizzards of words that keep meaning almost nothing. It’s so cold. Watch and wait. This year’s winterberries have lasted a long time. Beautiful red droves of them in roadside bushes. They’re among the last of the fall forage to be cleaned out by overwintering birds. Someone said it was a good December for the squirrels and blue jays. I guess winterberries probably taste bitter to a bird. Lingering, maybe.

So far this winter we haven’t had the bitterest cold. By that I mean 20- to 30-below zero, readings we haven’t seen in Troy in this millennium. That I was awake for, anyway. The day-melt, night-freeze cycle we get instead, requiring bucket after bucket of salted sand on the driveway, is harsh enough, at this point.

It goes on for so long. Most of it is still ahead — the paucity of light, like shortness of breath, the silent ice, the back-biting wind, dirt-crusted snowbanks, the bald eagles roaming empty space over Carlton Bog. You have to have a mind of winter to live in this kind of cold and not think of misery in the sound of the wind, so said one of the most disturbing poets in the American language. I’m still not there yet. It isn’t misery I see. It’s bitterness, the bitter cold, the bitter length of it, the darkness and recklessness.

The great question is what will follow.


Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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