No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.
– from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932), British writer
March is the month that shows people who don’t drink exactly how a hangover feels.
– Garrison Keillor (b. 1942), American writer, humorist, storyteller, and radio personality
Late winter doldrums
Like political campaigns and dysentery, winter in the North Country can go on and on long after it has ceased to be enjoyable or even interesting. Beautiful as they were on the days they arrived, February’s snowfalls have thawed and refrozen so many times they have become a pavement of ice and hard-packed snow across our farm’s fields and woodlands, and the late winter storms of March have covered that slippery shelf with four or five inches of powdery snow, a combination that makes snowshoeing a high-risk adventure and every stroll down the driveway a potential path to the emergency room.
So I’ve been trapped inside the clubhouse for several days, becoming more grumpy and morose than usual as this last phase of winter hangs on, a house guest who can’t take the hint he’s overstayed his welcome and ought to leave while we’re still on speaking terms.
Admittedly, being a late-winter shut-in can have some benefits. I’ve read eight books and half a dozen monographs over the course of the past two weeks and rewritten the first nine chapters of the manuscript of my novel-in-progress. I’ve reloaded all my shotshell hulls (12, 16, 20, and 28 gauges) in preparation for the clay target shooting seasons this summer, and I’ve worked almost every day with my young dog Abbey to improve her retrieving discipline. (She is still not steady to wing, but she does sit at my feet when she returns with the feather buck and surrenders it to hand promptly on the “give” command.)
Also to winter’s credit, I was motivated by frantic boredom to participate in the Iowa Caucuses in early February. Long, dark evenings spent watching political pundits on television try to make sense of the circus acts and freak shows of the presidential candidates’ campaigns had me believing, in my winter madness, that the Caucuses might somehow alter the nation’s rush to emulate Somalia. Dutifully, I did my best to demonstrate to the nation that a rural state that is 95 percent white and one-third rabid Christian conservative is entitled to serve as the model of American democracy and the initial proving ground for candidates in this bizarre spectacle of an election year. That experience did not brighten my outlook on life, but it did make me more lively for a few days in the same way that dashing across a busy highway can make you more attentive to your surroundings.
But those happy and positive moments seem outweighed, literally, by the negatives of late winter. I have discovered, for example, that either the waistbands of all my pants have shrunk two inches over the past few months or I have put on 10 pounds, and the evidence displayed in the mirror supports the second hypothesis. An eighth inch of dust covers the dumbbells and free weights I am supposed to exercise with daily to maintain the muscle tone, range of motion, and flexibility gained through the drudgery and pain of last year’s physical rehabilitation program. My personal hygiene probably needs some attention, too.
I’m chained in a dungeon of gloom. Winter’s refusal to end has put me in a funk.
One of the Over the Hill Gang, knowing of my sullen mood, sent me an e-mail message to say he hoped my seasonal depression was getting better now that the hours of daylight are getting longer and a few days of warmer temperatures promise the coming of spring. Oh yes, I assured him in a reply message. I’m getting much better. I mean, look, it’s only 10 a.m. and I’m already dressed.
Responding to my wife’s adamant suggestions, threats actually, to get out of my doldrums and my clubhouse, drive to town, and engage in some social interaction, I have done a book signing at the local book store, enrolled in a college seminar titled The Age of the Vikings, and been the featured guest at a social hour at the assisted living village, reading essays from my books. Since a third of the elderly audience went to sleep during my reading I’m not sure if that event lifted them, or me, out of the winter blues.
There’s more. This weekend we’re going to the Oneota Film Festival, a two-day screening of independently produced films, most of which are exposés of the corporate greed and government bungling that are destroying our environment and health, undermining our rights and freedoms, and hastening the coming of the apocalypse. I’m not saying that will cheer me up, but it will certainly fit my late-winter mood.
Winter, even a North Country winter, cannot last forever. Keeping things in proper perspective, I remember Percy Bysshe Shelley’s immortal line from his poem Ode to the West Wind:
“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
…and the response of his loving wife, Mary:
“It’s March, you Sussex fop! Go stick your head in the loo!”
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.
I’m just going to re-read your first sentence next time I look out the window at mud and ice and rain. Giggles help the doldrums.
Though being a curmudgeon that’s probably not in your repertoire. Unfortunate for you, perhaps you can add them to your physical therapy. 10 reps with the weights followed by two sets of giggles.
See, just imagining that has me all a giggle again.
Works great- thanks for lifting the doldrums from my corner of the world! 🙂
Thanks, Jessie. I don’t do giggles, but I’ll try a couple guffaws 🙂
Jerry, at least you had Winter. We have not had real, sustained snow here in the Northern Adirondacks. Have not used the snowshoes once.
When you get a chance, it would be helpful to revisit how one becomes a curmudgeon, as opposed to suffering from momentary Winter doldrums.
Keith – Sorry to hear that you had a non-winter in the Adirondacks. I love snowshoeing and would travel further north to the Minnesota forests around Duluth if we had an open winter here.
Not sure I could summarize the “journey to curmudgeon” in one or two essays. It has taken me years of disciplined study in cynicism, pessimism, skepticism, distrust, and disappointment, mellowed by occasional doses of depression and despair. A grumpy demeanor helps, too. 🙂
I’m not a hard-core pessimist, however, because I refuse to be defeatist. Until my time runs out I’ll continue to do what I can to benefit natural resource conservation in my small plot of the Earth — and enjoy the fruits of that labor every possible moment. Watching (unseen) a newborn fawn follow its mother though a greening pasture in the spring lifts even the worst curmudgeon out of the doldrums.