On the road to town stands a row of cottonwoods. It serves as a windbreak for the adjacent home along with a few shrubs and a decrepit wire fence that someone probably once used to contain horses at one point. They’re tall, upward reaching, and very naked except for a light brown dusting the branches against the gray sky; the first sign of fresh leaves emerging.
For two years now, this row of trees and the crowded cluster of hardwoods up in the hills have served as my seasonal clock. The winter finds them scraggly, twisted, bare and sullen against a snow scraped landscape. May brings the first signs of new life emerging which explodes into a distinct bright green of spring which darkens as summer progresses. Then September drives away the green, exposing rich gold, blood red and dull copper before October’s sharp winds send leaves fluttering to the dead, earthbound grass. Snow, ice and hoar frost take the place of leaves, and the cycle repeats.
As a child, these changes in the natural world signaled progression through school as I counted down the days to summer break. No matter how much I looked forward to the end of classroom confinement, part of me always looked forward to returning to school when September came. Years after finishing college, I still got a sense that I should pick up a few notebooks for school.
Then my seasonal migrations changed. Instead of migrating between indoor and outdoor, I switched from job to job and sometimes moved from one part of the country to another. For several years, home was wherever I rented for the current four to six months. This also meant spring and fall ignited a migration instinct in me. To this day, I have to take a road trip sometime in those two seasons to make the urge to move go away since the need to migrate died out a few years ago.
Seasons roll on. The weather cools. Animals go dormant along with human activity. Winter in the north plains is miserable for anyone not born and raised here. I quit cigarettes annually because standing outside in -20 F for 10 minutes is just miserable. Ironically, my tolerance for cold then nosedives, defeating the purpose of quitting in the first place.
Around February, I break out the box set of Lord of the Rings, cheap beat up, pan and scan copies from the used CD rack in some South Dakota video store. Somehow, seeing half of the stark misery of Mordor at any given time reflects the reality of winter, especially when trying to drive through a snowstorm at night. You know there is more to the picture, but some unknown force has cut it off from sight. Eventually, I pitch my equivalent of The Ring, my winter coat, into a bottomless closet which irretrievably consumes everything entering therein.
Spring is a hesitant progression into summer ritual, hesitant because the weather remains unpredictable well into June. This pounce directly from indoor hunkering to summer fun as soon as a thermometer shows 40 F for the shortest of seconds is because we don’t get much of that weather, and we know it.
Six packs and sweet liquor are bought. Firewood is gathered. Friends converge on picnic areas, backyards and campgrounds to share in the most primal of rituals, gathering around a fire. Lapping flames from a few chunks of wood brings warmth to summer nights and adds wonderful flavor to the food cooked by its radiation and convection. Stories of misadventure and adventure flow freely with the help of three good spirits: mood, alcohol and company. If there is heaven on earth, I’m convinced it’s around a campfire on a warm, summer night with all the people I have enjoyed hanging out with in my life.
Good times progress into the good ol’ days. Summer cools and gives way to picturesque fall. Like Gollum, I dive into the fires of my Closet Doom frantically hissing “Precious!” as I scramble for my coat, hat and gloves. Eventually, I will have to find my thermals somewhere in the chaos of possessions, but only after a few weeks of fighting to lose weight against a heavy current of baked goods, not out of vanity but necessity. Long-johns fill a body out by almost a whole clothing size. So if I want to breathe all winter, I have to drop the 10 lbs bonfire parties added. Besides, it’s the only acceptable excuse to avoid pumpkin spiced everything.
No sooner are the kids back in school and the seasonal section is taken over by Halloween. Back behind the spiders, ghouls and severed heads, a single aisle of Christmas decor lerks. Creeping like a zombie hoard, Christmas consumes one aisle after another until Halloween disappears along with half of the Walmart housewares section. This progression signals two things: that snowmageddon is just around the corner and eggnog is stashed somewhere in the milk section! The latter will distract me from the former until the first sub-zero high shows up on the forecast. After that, all I want is to hibernate my way out of this season.
But that’s not an option. So, I shiver through a last cigarette, stash my sandals, and dream of balmy summer afternoons cruising to the beach in an open Jeep to watch a setting sun shoot gold and crimson into the sky.