Ripeness Is All


When I was young and poorly padded, it was the cold that got me. In winter I felt drawn, hunched, crouched and furtive. I craved the expansiveness of heat, the languor of an afternoon so hot the only choice was stillness. I longed for light and color, impatient for the goldfinch to put on his yellow finery. There was little comfort in hothouse tulips that opened like welcoming hands. Every coat I bought was red.

Nature has given me an internal source of heat in midlife, and human activity has given us all a warming planet, and I am rarely cold enough now to need a coat. Still, I miss the light and color of the other seasons, and I struggle to find winter’s consolations even when I look for them. They are there, of course—they aren’t even subtle—but I am not tuned to their beauty. A cup of hot tea, a good book, a sweet old dog in my lap: it’s not like there are no rewards. I’m restless anyway. I want something to happen.

Only when I head outside do winter’s compensations start to become clear. I follow the sound of small ground birds rustling in dry leaves, and suddenly they are no longer invisible to me. I can tell the song sparrows from the field sparrows, and the sparrows from the dark-eyed juncos, and the juncos from the Carolina wrens. The contours of the earth emerge, fold upon fold, as though I had been seeing in only two dimensions before and can now perceive depth. At the lake, I turn toward the belted kingfisher’s rattling call, and there is the kingfisher himself, vigilant, his shaggy crest scraping the blue sky from a bare branch high in the trees.

Nothing in nature exists as a metaphor, much less as a moral lesson, but human beings are reckless metaphor-makers, and only a fool could fail to find the lesson here. Broken twigs and fallen branches lie beached at the top of the spillway, and instantly it is obvious: the water will rise in time, and the waterlogged branches will finally rise, too, cross over, plunge on. Nothing wedged tight is wedged tight forever. Everything that waits is also preparing itself to move.

The cold roots of the sleeping trees along the stream bed are even now taking in water. One day soon that water will rise and spring into the world in a rush of tight green leaves waiting to unfurl.