I recently found this piece I wrote over ten years ago…and it reminded me of how Montana has been my best teacher. May it find you aware and with deep instincts you can trust this holiday season.
First day of hunting season. I awake to a hot crrr-ack in the field at dawn. It is the same hot crack of split wood. In its echo, the same sad promise of winter fuel.
It is not my husband. He won’t shoot anything with eyelashes anymore. I sit up in bed and think about this poacher, so lazy or maybe desperate for his buck that he has to sit illegally in my meadow in the dark, quite possibly in my driveway in the comfort of his truck. Maybe he can’t stand the hunt, not unlike my husband. Just needs to feed his family. I am not angry at this person. It is too complicated to be angry about the reasons for which one creature kills another.
It has been a stunning October, with sapphire skies everyday, like it thinks it’s August. The trees have taken their time, basking in their toward-dormancy-dance. The river birch first, and then the aspen and alder, and now larch needles fall in fair-haired rains. I take my two-year-old son down the stairs every morning, fling open the door and say, “Thank you,” to the day. And he says, “Tenk yoo,” and we ignore the infestation of stink bugs and cluster flies clinging to our house, betting their lives on the exact reverse of this moment.
This morning I add to our thanks, “It smells like snow.”
“Snow?” He doesn’t remember.
Inside I make coffee and listen to NPR. It’s supposed to be 65 and sunny today. Same tomorrow. I shrug at my lack of sixth sense, and overcompensate by making the best cappuccino this side of the Rocky Mountains. At least I can think so.
Later, I am walking in the woods, despite the hunters. I insist that it smells like snow. I want to burn the reds and golds into my winter mind, which I know will become gray by February. I want to seal into it, the promise of spring; that the cold months might be full of good work. I pick up handfuls of larch needles and throw them over me the way I used to the oak seeds of my Midwestern youth, helicoptering through the air. The needles sift through smoky ozone from burn piles and wood stoves and land in my hair and I leave them there. I have to make friends with winter.
It’s the first sauna of the season over in Coon Hollow at my friends’ house. They have them most Sundays once the weather turns. Open house. Potluck. Take off your clothes and walk through the cold night in bathrobes holding lanterns. Go in to the octagonal cedar house with eucalyptus so strong your nose feels singed, take a seat on the top level if you dare, or acclimate on the lower level in the corner. Avoid the huge ticking wood stove with your bare body and greet the dim faces, flickering beards and hippie smiles in the lantern light. Push yourself to sweat it out. Lie slack-legged on a towel and do whatever you want with your eyes.
Modesty has no place here. You’d think it would get political but it rarely does. Mostly it’s talk about a pie auction at the Grange Hall or the back country ski conditions up toward Blacktail, or did you hear about the two women who got lost out for a ski and spent the night in a snow cave until their husbands found them the next morning — sang songs all night to keep their minds off the cold.
These are not people who are trying to prove anything to anyone; not even themselves. Maybe at first. But by now it is who they are, how they do things. These are people who want to keep their heads screwed on straight by keeping their fingers off buttons. They hate buttons. One of their daughters once said to me, “I love our outhouse — you don’t have to flush.” They have no running water, all wood burning heat, no indoor plumbing, no electricity — which means no TV, of course, and most of the time, they don’t eat meat.
Their son has a pet magpie that he rescued from the nest after its mother was killed by a raven, and he can whip your ass at any card game and stymie you with his very practical and somewhat mystical understanding of the way most everything works. Their daughter has read every Harry Potter book three times and loves her room because it has a canopy bed that she made out of birch snags and old tie-dye sheets. The mother makes soft instrument cases and the father is a blacksmith. They hike and bike and canoe all summer and ski and ski and ski all winter. I have never left their home once without a bagful of something they have grown in their garden or made in their oven.There is nothing this family can’t do. And so I figure I might ask them what they think: does it smell like snow to them?
The sauna is hot and most of us go out to the deck to sit steaming and naked in director’s chairs. Some are braver and rinse off in a cold-water-filled claw foot tub a few feet away. We hear whoops from them and I sit back while the rest talk snow.
One says, “It’s a little early, don’t you think.” This is not a question.
Another: “Oh, I remember snow on the ground on Halloween many years. And that’s in what — five days?”
Still another: “I think we still have some time yet.”
And another: “We better. I’m not done with my wood pile.”
“But does it smell like snow to anyone?” I peep. Afraid I am going to expose the side of me that has been pushing buttons all my life. I get a lot of maybe sounds. Err, mmm, eehh. It’s like I have asked a hunter where he bagged his buck.
Group consensus: “Doesn’t matter — it’ll come either way. Whether you smell it or not.” They laugh, knowingly. I feel small and controlling — trying to read such a thing as winter.
So it’s back in the sauna for those who can stand it. I take the top level. I want to bake everything out of me. The dying of autumn. The months without roses and soft earth. The trail rides over and the fishing reduced to auger holes in places where I can’t help feeling no human is supposed to stand. No strawberry stains on my children’s fingers. No wash up for dinner and seeing swirling dirt in the kitchen sink from an afternoon spent building fairy houses in the woods. No end-of-the-day dips in any number of lakes, coming up absolutely new. No loons flying over in the morning. No birds waking me up at all. I’ll have to look for the birds. Feed them my pittance of sunflower seeds that sometimes woo them too far into my window panes so that they drop and freeze before they can become un-stunned.
I can make it through New Years, I think, stalwart in the Bahamian heat. I can probably make it through Valentine’s Day. But I am scared of the rest. Less than 75 days of sun in the Flathead Valley per year. And we have been hogs this October.
The next morning, before I open my eyes, I hear a question in my head from a dream child. I do not know her, but she feels like mine.
“When will it snow?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Yes you do,” she says.
“Soon, then,” I say. “Very soon.”
And I open my eyes, and the world is white.