SUNY Jefferson

The Old Brother

Michael L. Keck

             I am not alone in how I wait for the first really big snowstorm of the season.  I do not mean a dusting or a few cars sliding through the intersections, but a ‘big dump,’ nothing less than a foot.  A snow that falls in a few hours.

             There is a process to this waiting.  It becomes a lament.  I begin in late August, when it is safe to be outdoors for hours on end.    The bugs of summer are waning.  The neighbors tell us that we no longer have to care about the lawn or the garden.  The sky seems brighter.  It has more stars in it.  Around dusk, around when I notice that I am still outside and thinking about a bonfire, to keep me here longer, I detect a hint of the chill.  The first sign of the coming fall.  I cannot recall ever seeing a snowfall in August, but that does not mean one has not taken place or should be dismissed from my future.  After all, I once had a snow day in June.  Here in the North Country, snow on Mother’s Day is common.  In late August, if you were new to our region, the eight counties that make up the North Country by arcing across the top of the state, just outside of the Adirondack Park, I would tell you to find a long sleeve flannel shirt or a fleece jacket.  Get ready.

The wait begins to speed up in September.  It has nothing to do with kids going back to school or football but the frequency of the wind.  One can begin to notice that it will blow all night long.  Leaves begin leaving, and not from frost.  There are all sorts of reasons why leaves fall off the trees.  Frost is only one.  A drought is another.  The absence of light is the most persistent.  Our minutes are accelerating in loss from morning light or evening.  Soon, one brightly colored soft maple leaf shows up on the porch steps or in the tall grass.  We can’t help but notice the beauty of it.  The context of it.  But the wind is joining us.  More light becomes available inside the forests for us to wonder at.  It is high time for ferns.

In my house journal, over the years, I have entries about a particular storm in September or October that moves this process along much quicker.  It sits like a harbinger on the horizon.  It is dark.  Windy.  The clouds roll across the sky much closer to me.  This is the storm of fall.  Not a snowstorm per se, but one that signals the dark brother sitting just over the horizon.  The long, cold dark.  See if I am wrong.  Go ahead, teach yourself how to look for it.  It will make you glad for paying better attention to what is going on in the outdoor world.  For one thing, you will be spending more time outside.  Perhaps even moving around.  But you will not just be watching, you will engage all of your senses.  Listening.  Smelling.  Fall has an odor to it.  You can actually smell the earth rotting away summer.  This odor brings on the wasps.  It makes the song birds linger on the ground.  Their group becoming larger.  There will be geese.  For many of us, September and October are the best two months of the year.  We plan special events just to celebrate this fact.  We know, and have seen often before, how short these can be.  Fall, the sort of which translates into calendar photos of always Vermont, with steeples in the background and a winding dirt road leading to a farm that still works, is actually rather fleeting.  If we forgo one weekend of this idyllic setting, think for one moment that we can return to this again next weekend, we are wrong.  We will be punished for such hubris.  The fall of our imagination is but a few weeks long.

But why do we cherish the snow as we do? One reason is that it announces for us where we are. No one will ever be confused about a lake effect snowstorm in the North Country once they have witnessed such an event. But living here, and living here all of our lives, we have not only become accustomed to these monsters; we enjoy these. We embrace these. These become the true reminder of where this region is and who those people are that inhabit it. Our storms have created us. In an era when so much of our lives moves by us in flux, and with greater speed than we care to recount, it is reassuring to live where climate change, although present, is not dramatically altering our region, or us. I realize there will be critics that want to haul out the ice storms, a few micro-bursts, the occasional tornado, but the history of the North Country has always counted these. And fires. There have been devastating forest fires and even common fires that have decimated entire towns, such as Croghan, or Carthage, Lowville. And with so many rivers, with hills and mountains shedding rain, floods are a norm. We simply do not count for much on the national scale, because so few of us live here and most others have never been here or believe that New York is only about the big city. The North Country is a secret. The presence of our winter storms means that we are home. That home is like we find in our memory and in our imaginations. Our storms have taught us how to endure.

But perhaps a more telling characteristic is how we have learned to manipulate these storms to our own peculiar advantage. We like these storms because these create a ready excuse for not going. For not going anyplace. Not to work. Church. To get groceries. The mail. We get to stay in. It is about wanting to be left alone. This should not be confused with saying that we are not friendly, even outgoing, but a good snow storm can be used to our personal advantage by staying in our jammies or lounge wear and slippers all day long. This is even better when the storm rages on for days. We get to inhabit the same clothes. These become us, paddling around the house without brushing our hair, coffee cup in hand, watching it fall hard outside of the warm side of glass. A car goes by. We disparage them under our breath for not demonstrating better judgement. Not for the road conditions, but for giving up a perfectly good reason to stay home.

And when we are home, folks don’t stop by. There are fewer phone calls. Hardly any reason at all to be nice to anyone but our cats and dogs. Even if one lives with others, we tend to leave them alone inside of our own house. We can become crabby at them for violating our sanctum. “Get away from me. Go find your own corner of the house. Go back to bed.” Those who have succumbed to cabin fever did not learn how to endure. They gave up on the process of it.

But why an ‘old brother’?

I have one. Over the years, he and I shared many snowstorms, moving into and out of these on our way to the deer camp. It did not take a phone call between us for each to understand when the other was going despite the weather or predictions. Often we show up within minutes of one another. I have been engaged in the craft of hunting for over forty years. Spending that much time doing anything allows one the perspective of time to delve into the deeper meanings of it and why it was thus, engaged. Or with whom. I use my brother as the basis of the snowstorm metaphor because we do not often see one another before fall. When we do, we feel like we are home again. That we are on familiar ground. That we have an innate understanding of how to act, how others will act towards us, and we can find our way back in time, safely amongst our memories. It is a comfort. These are the same patterns of understanding that I am able to associate to the snowstorms.

A snowstorm can become a metaphor for one’s home, not just where they live at that moment, but where our life was forged. It becomes the safe harbor for moving towards one’s death. For accepting the fact that further along the life path, one will have to give up aspects of their life that were dear to them.

It is how we find grace.