My friend Leo pushed his chair back. “Tell me,” he said to the half-dozen Mainers [residents of Maines, United States] gathered around the supper table. “How are we going to survive the next six months?”
“You mean,” I said, “the administration?” “No,” he said. “I mean the winter.” Leo spent the first 18 years of his life in Moscow, so hearing him question our chances of winter survival definitely got my attention. But I was ready for him. “The way we always do!” I said. “Cross-country skiing! Chopping wood! Big fires in the fireplace! Lots of chilli and stews in the slow cooker!” I was on a roll. “You know, there are times when winter is my favourite sea My friends were now pinching their foreheads as if I’d given them all a collective headache. You’d be surprised how often I inspire this reaction. “You love it so much,” Leo said slowly, “that you leave Maine every January, and move to New York City?”
He had me there. Since 2014, I’ve spent January through May in the classrooms of Barnard College of Columbia University; I made my annual migration back to Manhattan last week, in fact, and have spent the last few days doing the things I can’t do in Maine: attending services at Riverside Church, seeing Elaine May on Broadway, getting lunch from the halal truck. So, sure, New York is a great place to be in January. But I get homesick anyhow — for my wife, for our dogs, for my friends. And I miss the sounds.
In Maine, when it gets as cold as it is right now, the lakes begin to sing. If the ice is clear, a single stone tossed onto the surface can make a sound like a Jedi light sabre. If there’s snow on top, what you hear is the ice expanding, the water moving beneath. It’s an unworldly music like whale sounds, or the groaning of a wooden ship at sea. Then there is the hitting of the axe on a log. When I’m home, I like to split wood in the driveway on cold afternoons, trying to find just the right place in the grain to chop. I love wielding an axe, as if I am an elderly, willowy version of Gimli the Dwarf. I’m not a very good wood chopper, though. Sometimes I miss, or get the axe head stuck. Then I have to pry it out and try again. I love the sombre sound of ice falling from a tall pine tree and on the frozen ground. Twenty-one years ago, during the ice storm of 1998, our family was without power for almost two weeks. melting snow on the wood stove so we could have enough water to flush the toilet, and reading books out loud by the light of flashlights and candles. At night my children shined a light on the dead television, and I sat in that light, imitating their favourite shows.
Owl’s haunting cry
One day during that ice storm, I took my 4-year-old sledding. Pulling our toboggan behind us, we walked together through a shining passageway of tree limbs, like columns in the nave of a cathedral. Ice fell from the trees and crashed all around us. My child looked up at me and asked, “Are we safe?” I did not know what to tell her. I hope so, I said. When I venture out on a sub-zero morning in Maine, it’s the silence that strikes me first, and I think about where the birds have gone. Still, there are a few songs I recognise: the high violin notes of black-capped chickadees, the drunken screams of blue jays. But my favourite remains the barred owl, with its haunting cry: “Who cooks for you?”
In New York, the answer, usually, is no one. A lot of the time, I order takeout. Back in Maine, my wife and I cook for each other.
The most dramatic sound up north is the one that I almost never hear in New York City: the sound of nothing at all. In the middle of the night, the power goes out, and all our devices suddenly fall silent — the hum from the cable box, the fan on the heat vent in the kitchen, the quiet murmuring of the refrigerator. The silence, curiously, always wakes up the dog. Chloe, a black Lab, has climbed into bed while I’m asleep. She lifts her head and looks at me, uncertain. My wife snores softly beside me. Snow ticks against the window. The lake sings. Chloe wags her tail softly against the thick blankets, and I reach down to touch her cold nose. She wags again, and I hear her furry tail whapping against the flannel of the comforter cover. Sometimes, at moments like this, I think about the question my child posed so long ago: Are we safe? And I think, for now, my love, we are. For now. The dog and I lie there in the darkness of deep winter, and listen.
—New York Times News Service