, Gloucester, MA

February 8, 2013

Journal Pages: Chilling beauty of a winter's morn

Journal Pages
Susan Emerson

---- — When temperatures plummeted and held their place last week, the wind cut into my cheeks as I passed a bundled-up, unrecognizable soul walking on Stacy Boulevard.

He shouted out to me through a wool scarf wrapped tightly round much of his face, “It’s about half over now, Feb. 1. We’ll get through it!”

Over my shoulder, I called into the wind, “I guess we will – we always do.”

A few seagulls rode the waves at the shore, unconcerned with the frigid water temperature. Across the harbor a single boat punctuated the expanse of dark gray water, its captain surely colder than we two folk passing each other, at least on land, a half-hour before the sun was up. “I guess we will – we always do!”

I’d forgotten to glance at the thermometer before leaving home. Even through my thick gloves, I had to pump my fingers as they began to numb. I could have used another layer of shirt and some wrist warmers, but the cold pushed me to walk even faster, and I was determined to finish my hour’s walk.

In the garden at the Fishermen’s Wives monument, the skeletal rose bushes still had loose cuffs of hay set thoughtfully around their lower brown branches, and lined across the railing in front of them, a dozen seagulls tried to maintain balance against the harsh wind.

None of these conditions served to temper my love of the early-morning dark and the sweet solitude that accompanies it, though, and I couldn’t suppress a smile when, closer to Stage Fort Park where the pavement reaches the dirt road, there were imprints of boots, shoes, and dog paws set deep in frozen solid mud.

A chattering squirrel shook a pinecone hoping for a loose seed or two. Both he and I were disappointed that I had no peanuts in my pocket this time.

When I turned onto hardened tufts of brown grass near the tennis court, a curious crunching under my sneakers begged attention. There in the dim light of pre-dawn, I strained to see that each individual strand in a sprawling bed of pine needles, fallen from their parent-trees above, was encrusted with a delicate coating of ice, raising it slightly off the ground.

In the time it took to reach the summit of Hough Avenue and turn around for the return trip, the sky over the harbor had brightened. The rising sun swept a deep pink glow across the horizon, a breathtaking backdrop to the long line of leafless maple trees between us.

The warmth of the risen sun penetrated my body, relaxing muscles in my neck and shoulders that had tensed against the cold. Just as I rounded the tennis court, the rays of the sun had reached the millions of iced pine needles, momentarily transforming the ground into a blanket of sparkling diamonds.

Then, in the several seconds it took me to process this award-winning spectacle of Nature, the delicate shimmer of ice slid away, leaving only a wet path on the ground.

I thought how even the bleakest conditions give us reason to look deeper, to find the beauty that is always there, to bear witness to fleeting moments like ice-covered pine needles in the sun.

The dazzling autumn is left behind, and the hope of sweet, wet springtime and sultry, lazy summer lies ahead. Each builds upon the memory of the last, and expectation of the next. But the most precious moment of all is now, when every creature, plant, cloud, and wave contributes to its uniqueness; it’s the only moment we can be sure that we exist.

It was exhilarating to be part of that winter morning, I thought, and so thought the gulls that rode the tide to shore; I could see it in their eyes.

Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.