High tea in the wilderness and a toast to thelight



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.

In western 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 Rattlesnake Wilderness.

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.

From 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 Year!”

“Here’s to peace. Peace to Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast!”

“How about wilderness?”

“Keeping 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.

Annick Smith is a writer and sometimes filmmaker who lives in the Blackfoot Valley of western Montana. Her latest book is In This We Are Native, Memoirs and Journeys, published by Lyons.