Richard van Duyvendyk

Reflections from the Swamp

If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still have the same amount of snow.

During these isolating times, many of us have found ways to get around the rules and visit friends and family. This close contact too often has proven itself to be folly. I found a way to get around the rules with no possible spread of the plague. I’ve befriended Winter. I hold her in my arms and embrace her. I walk with her, talk to her, and let her into my heart. She doesn’t like coming into the house, so we spend our time together outdoors. This is a story about breaking all the rules and embracing Winter.

When you go out and look at the location of old farmhouses around here, you can stand with the pioneer sizing out the property and see them locate the house on a bit of a knoll or a place near the center of the land so that all was more easily accessed. Little consideration was made for the location of the road because the roads weren’t ploughed. Many families would go into town in early winter, get the supplies needed for the winter packed on a wagon, and return home to bunker down. Winter was the relative that came for an extended visit. Winter altered family life, honed survival skills, offering some stormy challenges and some reprieve from the hard labour of farm life. Our place is about 500 ft. from the road and sits on the property’s high point, about 4ft above the swamp.

The driveway is lower than the adjacent property and is directed at a right angle to the prevailing northwest winds. Those National Geographic films showing the Sahara desert advancing on a settlement and burying it in the sand happens four or five times each winter when the Nor’westerlies blow the snow in 3ft deep across the driveway while we sleep.

Unlike geese, Monarch butterflies, and the millions of Canadians that flock to the warm places during winter, we tend to stick around with the crows. Sure I wouldn’t mind sipping on an endless flow of Margaritas by the pool, but then we’d miss the dance with Winter. We’d miss the snowshoeing, trail skiing, or just the walks across the frozen swamp. We wouldn’t see the mouse tracks, rabbits and chickadees, or hear the coyotes calling us from across the pond. We’d miss the crackle of the snow as you walk in the cold. Then there’s winter’s food such as homemade soups and stews, big thick knitted woolly socks for in the house, and the cozy ugly sweaters we all love. Our favourite thing is making snow angels with our grandchildren. Living in a swamp seems to attract mosquitoes. For some reason, they respect our love affair with Winter and leave us alone all winter! My bride and I can sit out in the lawn chairs by an open fire, make snowballs from the snow near the fire and sip back on a warm cup of hot chocolate. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Unlike the pioneer, we have a Massey Ferguson tractor with a snowblower. I know, it should be in a museum along with the mummies (and daddies) from ancient Egypt. The tractor’s engine block stamp reveals that it was built in 1948, a few days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but Mahatma does, so we named the tractor Mahatma. Just as Mahatma guided the Indian people to freedom, he guides us through the snow on new pathways when we plough through the snow to the rest of humanity. The tractor has so many idiosyncrasies that no one can start it besides me. I sit up there in the open wind with Mahatma and know that I’m alive. We see the Sahara desert moving in but feel that we can move mountains of snow. Mahatma and I are one with the frozen world as we go head to head and toe to toe into the dance with Winter.

Last year the chain broke on the snowblower, and the bearings seized during a wind storm with 50 m/hr winds. It was minus 40 with the wind-chill in Fahrenheit and Celsius, the only temperature that these two duelling units of measure agreed on. I found a piece of chain from a previously broken chain and an extra link in one of the about 80 jars of bolts that old guys like me keep in garages, just in case. I greased the bearing, got it turning and determined how long to make the chain. The blood retreated from my fingers and toes, so I went into the house, stuck my feet in the cookstove oven and put my hands in a bowl of warm water. It’s hard to find feelings more sacred than the warmth of a cookstove. Bernadette set a bowl of butternut squash soup that tastes like last year’s summer garden in front of me. God, I love this country! The dance with Winter has worn out many a person, but I’m still dancing. It’s a slow dance; I’ve got Winter wrapped in my arms, and neither of us is going to let go. Man, that woman has a lot of spunk! She makes me feel alive! Never take her for granted; she’s powerful, beautiful, and loves to dance.

While going out for a walk with Winter in the woods, I sat down on a stump and opened my thermos. I offered her a hot chocolate, but she declined. There is often a lull in our conversations, so I quietly sat, waiting for her to speak. With a silent whispering voice carried by the wind, she told me that she loved Canada, Siberia, and Antarctica. Her favourite animals were polar bears, wolverines, and penguins. I told her that I loved The Arctic, ice cream, and ice cubes in my Scotch. Winter confessed that she wasn’t that keen on the tropics and she found hurricanes a bit dramatic. Then, trying to be empathetic, I said that I wasn’t enamoured with the Caribbean, with all those hotels, bikinis, free booze, and the reek of suntan oils. (I waited for the bolt of lightening but was mercifully spared). We both went on talking about blizzards, ice storms, and moon-dogs. We were just talking about the weather, nothing too serious. It felt a bit like a first date where we were sitting out in the snow getting to know each other. I mustered up my courage and told her that I loved her. She smiled and said she loved me too. However, she qualified, our romance would have to be migratory, and that I would have to let her go from time to time to mingle with other people in other places. I understood the parameters of our romance and agreed to her terms. What else could I do? Sometimes we have to live in the moment.

When the geese come back, Winter takes her time, packs up her snow blankets, pillow-like snow clouds, and leaves. I feel like she’s giving me the cold shoulder, but I’ve learned to accept that; she couldn’t keep her spirit around here if she tried. Winter will be back. She always comes back as the geese gather and leave the swamp, wings elevating them into the air, bringing them south. Flying in their V formations, the big birds begin sounding their trumpets, heralding Winter’s arrival.  When she does come back, Mahatma and I will be waiting for her with open arms. We’ll be ready for the next dance with Winter on the dance floor of the Sahara. The dance with Winter is life-giving and beautiful, so beautiful. I love you Winter, you make me shiver and, feel alive!