Better than Summer?
The last Saturday in January was not really better than summer, it was winter and it was cold as befits late January. The snow that fell in still air in the beginning of the week was that most unusual snow, landing in a thick blanket and staying in place overnight, rather than falling into wind and being swept from the fields into great drifts rising wherever is most inconvenient. It blew around a bit the next day but mostly settled in the cold.
A waxing moon on the fallen snow did not give a luster of mid-day to objects below, instead it filled the air with reflected light and created a fairytale world as some of us would have it, a middle earth between the saccharine talking bluebirds that flutter through the perfect forests of Disney and the inarticulate ogres that lurk in the dark woods of the Brothers Grimm.
The fields were not mowed last year, they are not level and white and giving themselves to visions of wild creatures roaming, but the growth is winter sparse and the tracks of both deer and trucks are solid bands amidst the dry grasses. In the morning light deer will emerge, dusky as the brittle goldenrod and milkweed and burgeoning bayberry, but in the moonlight creatures more fantastical move about just beyond the range of sight.
The air stayed frigid, not as it has been other years when it has stormed this same week but solidly below freezing. The ground turned hard, the wind blew but the sun shone, and it was days before the earth absorbed and held the cold, it was a month into the season and the days were lengthening and the sun inching out of its lowest southern arc before winter settled.
It snowed again, softly, at week’s end and left a soft covering untouched at mid-day. Someone had been into the first of the four little houses on the way to the beach but beyond that first drive the road is untouched but for the tracks of deer and long feet, unwebbed, that must be the pheasants who live in the underbrush.
The path to the beach is pristine, the site of beach fires — that one supposes are more path fires — that danced high and orange in the night only a couple of weekends ago is covered; a few charred pieces of wood and an ever-growing pile of wood beside the road, waiting to be thrown into future flames, with just a few charred pieces of wood giving away the unlikely locale.
It is the beach, though, that is truly untouched, untraveled, in a way it never is. Even on the earliest of summer mornings there are footprints left from the previous days, and too often tire tracks from the night. It is, even on a cold sunny windy end of January day, briefly better than summer, every yesterday erased by the thin layer of new snow.
It is cold and windy but I remember a day a few years ago when it was much worse, ten above zero, that I met a high school student leaving the beach carrying photography equipment, which seemed crazy in and of itself. Then he said he had been filming his friends and classmates out on the water, surfing.
To the north, where those surfer kids would have been, the skim coat of snow cannot offer an illusion of healing. The dunes are sharp, again, sheared, the shore covered with banks of rocks, the cut in the land just before Jerry’s Point as raw as it was the morning after Sandy, when most attention was on the shattered roads and buckled dock and uncertain harbor entrance.
I think of the beach grass torn out, of the miles of roots strewn along the shore, thrown further up the path than I’d ever seen the tide reach. There are piles of it still, under the snow.
There is something about the beach, eerie and quiet even in the sunny wind. The dog continues to snuffle around, dancing in the snow, searching for imagined treasures just beneath its surface. She hasn’t it in her to be bad, but I tire of her single minded determination to find something, anything, and click the leash to her collar.
A few short days later she is stopping at every puddle as dogs are wont to do, as though each has a special taste, like pools of fine wine there for the lapping. The temperature has turned, it is crazily warm, climbing into the fifties but the new warmth comes in a day of little sunlight and the land is sodden, the awful dark wet it is in March, when it looks nothing if not wounded by the winter. The snow has melted, the frost is turning the earth soft and spongy underfoot, muddy where there is any vehicular traffic. There are black clots along the road shoulders, I think at first too many deer hoof prints in the sod but realize it is just the aftermath of plowing, all the dregs pushed off the pavement with the snow, unnoticed until the thaw.
There is a bit of drying wind, lowering the level of the puddles before the next mass of rain pushes its way east toward us, wind that will turn stronger later, the battering, rattling wind of winter.
At day’s end the air is full of moisture, the land and sea and sky all run together, muted by the descending fog, and the golden lights of the harbor seem to float in the blue air of twilight. It may be the end of January, wet and windy with more cold promised after this messy thaw, but there is a full three-quarters of an hour more sunlight than there was when this season began, and tomorrow the sun will rise, even if behind a curtain of rain, before seven and will not set until after five, not really better than summer but a sure trend in the right direction.