Having a Mind of Winter

snowy fieldPhoebe was moseying her way back into the school at the end of recess. “I like to listen to the ground,” she said, coming through the door.  “The ground tells you stories.” Now that was an unusual excuse for eking out a few more minutes on the playground! But I knew what she meant. Perhaps it’s the austereness of sound in winter, or the fact that there are simply fewer things to hear, that heightens the rewards of paying attention with that particular sense. Then there is just the stark clarity of sound, or its absence, in 0-degree weather. Furthermore, there’s the fact that we are accustomed to the range of sounds emanating from up high: wind in branches, sleet on the window pane, the occasional crack of frost. Phoebe was listening down low, her ear to the ground. She’s right: it does tell stories. Forty years ago I spent my winter free time on Mr. Hurley’s pond, the neighborhood frog pond by summer and the skating rink for kids by winter. But when the hockey game petered out due to cold or calls to “come for dinner,” and we tired of just skating in circles to practice turning, we would slump to the ice and crawl around inspecting its air bubbles, fissures, trapped sticks and plants—even the occasional minnow. And then we would just lie there and listen. When you put your ear down to the frozen water, you hear only your own breathing and heartbeat at first. As you relax in the cold, the pond begins to speak. The ice telegraphs even minute skate-stomps from rim to rim, or the rarer popping of tension released. Eventually, I swear, you can hear the sound of frogs sleeping. Or the story of a childhood pond, and not caring how wet your mittens or how cold toes your toes might be. It’s worth it to be this still and to hear something this noiseless. The poet Wallace Stevens knew about this kind of listening. Like the snow man, “one must have the mind of winter” to “[behold] nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Have a listen. Put your ear to the ground. It’ll talk to you. It’s an old story. It’s your story. There’s a little winter left to listen.

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