Solstice means “sun standing still.” Today is the darkest day, but tonight the moon will be full. Temperatures hover below freezing, and a skiff of snow hints at winter, although the colors are end-of-fall browns: brown bunchgrass, brown pine, elderly ponderosas.
Montana, we are living the driest December on record, drier than
the open winter of 1904. As I turn onto a trail marked by a white
china teacup filled with a blue Christmas tree ball, I wonder, ou
sont les neiges d’antan? Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Gone. Should I blame El Niño? Maybe global warming is
transforming Montana from snow belt to semi-desert. No matter,
I’m on my way to celebrate solstice with high tea in the
I’m late. Harassed. Feeling
despoiled, for I’ve discovered that someone — neighbor?
friend? friend of friend? marauding stranger? — has violated
the hewn-log cabin we call the Little House. This hundred-year-old
bunkhouse was where my family lived 32 years ago while we built the
big log house across the road. My husband was alive then, and our
four sons were boys. It became our guest house, the twins’
study, a place of memory and creative work.
Now, a thief
has walked through the never-locked doors, ascended the ladder to
the loft, and run off with the comic book collection my guys had
saved. We live at the end of a county road and they grew up with no
television or video games. Just books and comics and the play of
imaginations. Although the comics are worth thousands of dollars,
the ache we feel is betrayal. A piece of childhood has been stolen.
My sense of security also has been shattered, and in this
personal, tiny way, I empathize with the fear and anger shared by
millions of Americans who, although not directly injured, feel
threatened by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I went
out to buy locks to defend against future theft, but decided not to
just yet, because to be paranoid is crazy. I would not respond in
the simple, violent clichés acted out in those stolen comics.
As I walk the rutted trail along a creek, I remind myself
how lucky we are — we of the North American middle and upper
classes — to live untouched by famine, poverty, invasion. My
loss is merely property. Life, however, cannot be replaced, and to
take it from others is evil, even if we feel threatened. Join the
dark world, I tell myself. Who promised you eternal security?
The skies lower, a few flakes float in the darkening
woods, and a sense of peace overtakes my sense of loss. I imagine
I’m a snowflake — small, unique, one of many in this
wilderness — and I’m content that my feet, warm in
felt-lined boots, are touching the bountiful earth.
a clearing comes laughter, the animated high of women’s
voices. Smoke rises from a riverstone chimney and logs crackle in a
firepit. Forty women have gathered at this abandoned homestead.
Some are dressed in their mothers’ mothballed furs, some
sport feathered hats, capes, muffs, velvet robes. Others, like me,
new to the etiquette of wilderness high tea, wear fleece pants,
wool sweaters, knit caps.
We are women of means and many
professions. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, a pharmacist, a house
painter, some teachers, a few writers, an artist or two,
housewives, professors, somebody’s teen-aged daughters.
My friends, the martini-and-yoga ladies, snare crustless
cucumber sandwiches from a silver platter. I spear mushrooms
stuffed with goat cheese, pluck frosted red grapes from a bunch.
What luxury! What decadence! What fun! Later I’ll try the
chocolate roll filled with whipped cream, but now I’m heading
for rum grog.
Cold descends and we scan a dusky sky for
moonrise. It’s six o’clock. Children must be fetched,
dogs walked, husbands and lovers fed. We’ve got to pack up,
douse the fires. This wilderness is closed winter nights to all but
coyotes, deer, bear, owls, rabbits, an occasional wolf. But first
must be toasts.
“Merry Christmas! Happy New
“Here’s to peace. Peace to Iraq,
Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast!”
“How about wilderness?”
roadless areas roadless. And clean water clean, and clean air, and
Finally, someone — I can’t see her
in the dark — a woman with a full, throaty voice, calls out.
“It’s the solstice, damn it. Let’s
drink to light!”
I down the dregs from my mug. Yes.
Light is what we should ponder as we stumble down the trail. What
is it we value? Meanwhile, sing carols. Tomorrow, the frozen sun
begins its return toward earth.