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A Winter's Tale

Sheet ice, summer tires and a glimpse of a state of grace.

January 15, 2006|Rick Bass | Rick Bass is a novelist and essayist who lives in Yaak, Mont.

I remain convinced that there are levels of worlds within worlds, seams and crosscurrents in which the old, worn rules shift slightly; that there are levels above us and below us, in which connections are made more easily, and that each of us occasionally passes through such seams. Not long after the grace of Thanksgiving, and the gift of a year's meat from the hunt, I find myself descending from that high current of great good luck that seems to exist just above the regular landscape of my life, passing right on down through the real, or ordinary, world--as if overshooting my mark--and drawn into a swirling current of other-direction, a place where caution must be exercised.

It's a Wednesday evening when I first sense the descent. We're gathering at the Forest Council office for a regular monthly board meeting--trying, as ever, to figure out how to raise some funds to keep our two wonderful part-time staffers hanging on, and to strategize about how to stanch the ecological wounds that are being inflicted almost nonstop upon the public lands. My wife, Elizabeth, is out of town, and I've got the girls with me. The plan is for me to drop them off with our friends Bill and Sue, while I attend the meeting in their woodshed office. Elizabeth will get back before the meeting is over, and can pick them up.

And that's the way it goes, just as planned, except for a little nudge, a little swirling in one of those currents below. On the steep drive down to Bill and Sue's, my slick summer tires spin a bit on the ice and snow.

I drop off the girls--they're delighted to play with Bill and Sue's children on a school night--and then hurry on to the meeting. In typical gluttonous fashion, wanting to have my cake and eat it too--and with extra icing, at that--I made plans to fix a fancy supper for Elizabeth's return, but have run out of time. On my way out the door, however, I scooped up my preparations, in all their varying stages of half-readiness--diced onions, diced jalapenos, grated Monterey Jack cheese, sliced avocados, toasted cumin seeds, chopped cilantro, etc.--in hopes of being able to work on the dish (black bean huevos rancheros) at the little gas stove in the Forest Council office. I tossed the pots and pans I'd need into a paper grocery bag, as well as our fancy $20 metal spatula with its sleek cherrywood handle: a spatula that makes you want to fry an egg.

Of course, there's no time to cook during the meeting--the discussion is too intense, the issues too elemental, to receive anything other than the undivided attention of each of us--and just about the time the meeting ends, Elizabeth arrives to pick up the girls.

I'm a little off-balance, world-wise. Part of me is still clinging to the dreamy, snowy suspension of the hunt, and part of me is rattled, agitated, by the demands of the activist. Part of me is wanting to get home and cook that meal too--as if that might be some way of establishing a transition between dreamland and real-land--but part of me remembers that little momentary tire-spin on the way in, and so I tell everyone to drive out ahead of me, so that if I get stuck I won't be blocking anyone else's path, and send the girls to ride in Elizabeth's truck, which already has its studded snow tires. (Ever the cheapskate, I was hoping to get a few more weeks' wear out of my old tires, and to save a few weeks' wear on my own studded tires.)

Not quite uneasy, but feeling something--some kind of imbalance--I have the prescience, at least, to grab some firewood to toss in the back of my truck for added weight over the rear axle, to give me better traction on my way up the long hill: the tilted hill that hugs the cliff that hangs out over the river so far below.

It's snowing hard, and even though it's piling up over the ice-skin of the road, making it even more treacherous, I'm glad to see it. Except for the one year we got way too much snow, we can hardly ever get enough in the Yaak Valley. Rain doesn't count--it washes away into the Yaak River, and thence to the Kootenai, and then the Columbia, and then the Pacific. Only snow counts against the greenhouse heat of summer, and the apocalyptic dry winds that seem to increase in both aridity and vigor each year. Even in the winter, nearly every day is a kind of waiting, and when the snow falls like it's falling tonight, there is very much a feeling of security and serenity that extends beyond just the visual beauty. There is solace, relief, bounty, comfort, promise.

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