Our little hamlet of Poudre Park in the northern Colorado Rockies was gifted last night with the season’s first snow. By the time the sun rose on this Veterans Day, about six inches covered our valley and surrounding mountains.
The storm started early last night when a steady rain began pittering onto the roof of Sunnyside, our little, cozy home along the banks of the Poudre River. The pittering eventually faded away as rain turned to soft snow that landed gently and silently.
The National Weather Service calls this a “November Witch” storm, an intense system, moving fast, spreading blizzards and high winds through the Rockies, Great Plains, Upper Midwest, Ohio Valley, and the Great Lakes. It was during one such Nov. 10 Witch Storm 40 years ago that the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior. Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the tragic event in his 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—“That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed…Twas the witch of November come stealin’…”
When the first snow arrives, I usually think not about the sunken freighter but about Gary Snyder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Zen poet who melds together ecology and spirituality in his works.
When I was a young and very green newspaper reporter five decades ago, I had a long interview with him, all interesting and insightful, I still remember, although the forgetfulness of my aging has blurred much of what he said. During most of my ensuring wandering years, I carried around one of his poetry books that contained a poem that I particularly loved. Alas and woe, though, the treasured book was lost somewhere along the way.
But the favored poem I remember clearly—and I think about it when life is about to change on first snowy days. The poem, “After Work,” was written from Snyder’s experience of coming out of chilly weather and into the shack where he lived with a woman:
The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog
I pull out your blouse,
warm my cold hands
on your breasts.
you laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
hot iron stove.
bring in the axe, the rake,
we’ll lean on the wall
against each other
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark
I always interpreted the poem to mean that each of us should be prepared for everything, the storms and calms of life, and we should keep life simple and take care of what we have, and, most importantly, embrace and appreciate the comfort and pleasures and the warmth of human companionship.
I asked Gary Snyder about the poem when I interviewed him all those long years ago. How did he come up with imagery? Here’s what he replied: “A storm was coming and I thought I better get the stuff in. And my hands were cold so I copped a feel to warm them up.”
Such is the makings of poetry, and many things in life. There is always an underlying flow, something else happening, an extra element, or a surprise, that you may not see right way unless you keep your eyes and mind open wide. Yet sometimes it all depends on your view. Potatos, Po-taatoes. Half-empty, half-full.
With all these thoughts in my mind, Patty and I scurried about yesterday preparing for the oncoming storm. The day started bright and warm, with a sunny blue sky in early afternoon, and then the light of mid-afternoon hazed into a dim grayness as dark, cold clouds wandered in from the west.
We pruned the apple tree; pulled gladiolus bulbs from the flower garden to store them inside for the winter; we yanked up dead sunflower stalks and black-eyed susans that had been so yellowy fun this summer but now are brown and dry; we placed the snow shovel outside next to the front door, within easy reach; and we moved terracotta flower pots and three metal lounge chairs onto a porch where they will be protected from the vagaries of winter.
The chairs are leftovers from when my grandparents built Sunnyside in the 1920s and lived there many decades. After their deaths, the chairs were always left out, exposed to wintry elements, and eventually became rusty and sorrowful-looking. But this summer Patty spent hours sanding away rust and painting them with bright, happy colors, an homage to my long-gone forebearers.
We tossed the sunflower stalks and black-eyed susans onto the part of a river bank that we’re trying to restore. We could see ice crystals that had formed around rocks partly submerged in the water near shore.
The river, at low stage as it now is, is flowing just as it should be at this time of the year, rippling its melodious tinny sounds along. In another month or two a thick layer of ice will cover this stretch of the river. Even then, we will still be able to hear the rippling music, muted a bit, as the stream continues onward under the ice. I know this from past winters.
By 8 o’clock this morning, the November Witch Storm was over in the northern Colorado Rockies. It moved rapidly to the east, leaving behind a cloudless delphinium-blue sky, a soft breeze puffing snow off pine boughs, and a good day ahead, a good day ahead.
Life comes in small, simple, enjoyable things along the river.