The cold winds on this final day of March are trying their best to prolong winter, bringing with them a storm that has blanketed the North Country with an inch of snow. This northwest wind has also scoured all traces of humidity from the air, making it as light and lifeless as that uppermost level of the sky ruled by the Greek god Aether.
The cold gusts come down from on high, driving all they touch down to ground level, including me, a bent weed trying to hide from the razor-sharp scythe.
Spring is late. The deciduous trees have not yet dared to bud out with the promise of leaves, so on this bone-chilling walk across our farm with my birddog Abbey I can look down the face of the west bluff into the Trout River Valley. Almost all the ice is gone from this stretch of the Trout where it flows into the Upper Iowa River, fringing the edges of the pools of stagnant backwaters. There has been very little snowfall this winter, and consequently little snow-melt runoff to swell the Trout out of its banks and clean out these muddy puddles.
Sitting in the lee of a blown down elm tree I am shielded from the worst of the wind and can watch the river roll along, chocolate brown from the silt and loam eroded from row crop fields along its course. During my half-hour watch there are several soggy clumps of flotsam and jetsam carried along in the river’s slow current. I tend to categorize this debris as “natural” and “unnatural.”
Natural wreckage comprises the trunks and limbs of dead trees, on occasion a drowned and bedraggled calf or winter-killed deer, clots of mud entangled in the tendrils of brambles that still cling to slim hope of life if they can wash ashore and re-root. One time I spied the tattered remains of a bald eagle – or more likely a turkey vulture. Another sighting, I am convinced, was the body of the last runty mastodon in the North Country; it may have been a bloated Brown Swiss dairy cow, but the long matted hair convinced me otherwise. The Mammut species were forest dwellers about 10,000 years ago, and it was always my hope to take one with a bow.
The unnatural river-born junk is mostly farm equipment and supplies, battered wagon boxes, sprayer tanks, rotten tractor and truck tires, discarded hoses and wiring, lots of seed bags, tangles of barbed wire fencing and waterlogged wooden posts – that sort of thing. Rarely, I may catch a glimpse of a partly submerged car fender, a bent-up tree stand or ground blind, tarps, gas cans, doors with broken windows, once an antique school desk – artifacts of an industrial-consumer civilization that some curious anthropologist may unearth in five or six thousand years and wonder, “What the hell is this thing?”
The river carries these ruins and rubble with the stolid patience of a garbage truck in a narrow alley between dumpsters. But instead of the city’s rats, we have raccoons and possums rooting for treasures and gifts.
Its current, sometimes sluggish, sometimes raging, makes me aware that life goes on and on despite hardships and glories, heartbreaks and disappointments, joys and achievements. The river suffers its tribulations and calamities, its delights and its triumphs. And we suffer ours.
In a week or so, spring will arrive and we will put this winter behind us.