LOCAL VIEW –Cold Comfort–

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The  Atlantic was so hot today that islands in the distance seemed to float over the shimmer of a mirage, like you see shimmering over a hot highway in July. The difference was the Atlantic really wasn’t hot as a highway; it was cool, but the air was frigid.

A gale was blowing straight from the north, and the surf grew manes like charging horses.

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I dressed in my warmest clothes, with my warmest long underwear, for a beach is beautiful in all weathers, except perhaps for women. Personally I prefer bikinis to burkas.

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Somewhere under that bundling was my wife, and her voice was warm, and that really is the main thing that matters.

It has been too long since the summer of love
When it all seemed obvious and simple.
The Woodstock dream was a beckoning dove
That made young maid’s cheeks beautifully dimple
But now those cheeks are like leather and creased
And the beauty is kept sheltered within.
The maid’s lovely smile has now sadly ceased
For she shows missing teeth with her grin.
Time’s tax has robbed those who do not look deep
And see that time improves wives as it does wine.
The superficial fall fast asleep
As others trim lamps for a Guest divine.
As winter draws near in the gathering storm
Be glad when you walk with a voice that is warm.

It is amazing how quickly the mind shifts gears, if you give it half a chance. I suppose that is why some spend so much to seek ski slopes. Being a bit more stingy, (call it frugal), and less able to withstand the terrible crashes which I, as a bad and reckless skier, once amazed (or horrified) all on the slopes with, I find a beach a better place to be when winds get bitter. But the effect is the same.  Senses are sharpened. And it is far cheaper, with off-season rates.

The streets are strangely deserted. You half expect to see a tumbleweed blowing down the ghost-town avenues, but instead must be satisfied with a windblown newspaper. (Rare enough; who reads those things any more?) Not only have tens of thousands of tourists left, but most of the workers who waitress tables and change sheets have fled as well. All that remains is a remnant of humanity, a little like you are in some sort of “Mad Max” movie about Earth after Armageddon. Vast eateries with huge parking lots are completely closed, and only smaller joints remain. And you had best be careful walking into such places. Some are where fellows go when they are unemployed from September to May, and you don’t want to bring a wife there. More upscale, but strangely even more adolescent, are restaurants where men connive how to rip off the public next June, (and I identify such places because all the cars outside have Florida and New Jersey plates, and the men inside wear shiny suits no one on vacation wears, and don’t drink from mugs.)

To eat well, go to a local grocery store. If you insist upon eating out, ask the people at the grocery store. The cashier will tell you she can’t afford to eat out, so my wife asked her where her parents ate out. Or ask the person running the place where you are staying.

To be honest, this research is far more fun than the recreation summer visitors find at night clubs or upon roller coasters or at miniature golf courses. Meeting people is far more fun than mere distractions.

And, if you are fed up with people and really do need a distraction, walk the beach and talk to the gulls. This is actually what drew people to the beach in the first place, though the purpose is defeated when you are elbow to elbow with ten thousand others on towels.  A beach is hardly a beach in the summer. The sands reverts to how a beach should be when the wind chill dips to zero (-17º Celsius).

The gulls are easier to talk to, because they are largely disgruntled. They were overfed during the summer, stealing people’s french fries and hot dogs, and do not approve of the changed circumstances. The sad fact of the matter is that plenty created an overpopulation, and many will not make it to spring. The healthier birds wheel and screech and fight over the sea-clams and dead crabs exposed by the retreating tide, in the acceptably un-spiritual manner of gulls, but many others crouch in the sand, sulking in the gale. The don’t want to fly in the wild wind, and even seem reluctant to waddle out of your way,  for that involves turning their tails to the wind, and the gale then plucks at their feathers, ruffling them like a hand rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way.  Only with the most uncomplimentary glances your way will they open their wings and be whipped down the beach against the harsh glitter and glare of the wintry sun.

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Even as the lumbering gull is torn downwind, one notices tiny dots skittering to and fro below it, at the water’s edge. I suppose they are some sort of sandpiper. But what seems most incredible to me is that they are even able to survive in the cold.  Plucked they would amount to little more than a couple of tablespoons of hot blood,  and in the windchill two tablespoons should freeze solid in two minutes. Yet they seem utterly untroubled by the cold.  Compared to the gulls they seem downright cheerful. What sort of crazy metabolism burns in them? And what the heck are they pecking at in the sand that fuels such tiny engines?

Whatever it is, I want some.

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When gales dent my eyeballs and wires are singing
And ruffled gulls sulk, before bending downwind,
What sort of fires are sandpipers bringing
To beaches abandoned, where summer once grinned?
They skitter away from the water’s onrush,
Then scamper close to its sizzling retreat,
Untroubled by growling surf’s thump and hush
And running on amazingly unfrozen feet.
My fingers, far fatter, are bitten by frost,
Yet God keeps birds wonderfully warm.
Perhaps they’re a symbol, made for the lost
Who can’t see how they will live through a storm.
We shouldn’t be sure cold can chill to the bone
When Paul wrote great things from the sewers of Rome.

GONZALO GONE

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The upper map shows Hurricane Gonzalo heading northeast, after clouting Bermuda, towards the middle of the right margin. (If you click these maps you can get a less fuzzy version.)

The second map shows that, in the process of a day, Gonzalo sped right off the upper right corner of the map. That is fine with me. We had a meteorological set-up this year that made me nervous, but we escaped without a hurricane hitting New England.

When I was younger I actually wanted to be hit, as it would have been exciting, and also would have supplied me and my chainsaw with a lot of work, and lots of free firewood.  (Hurricane Bob actually kept my family warm one winter, back when I tended to become broke around Christmas,  because I saw my landscaping work dry up after the last leaves were raked.)

Now I’m older and would rather see the leaves stay on the trees as long as possible. The worst hurricanes around here hit when the leaves are green, and trees tip over like sailboats with too much sail aloft. Later hurricanes strip all the colored leaves off the trees in a matter of hours.  If a hurricane hits now we have few leaves left, and our trees can withstand a blast when their branches are bare, just as a sailboat can avoid capsizing when “running before a gale on poles.”

Oddly, often our worst winds occur in non-hurricane nor’easters, which have winds “of hurricane force.”  Our hurricanes, on the other hand, have often weakened and no longer have winds “of hurricane force.”  It makes me think we should coin the phrase, “winds of nor’easter force.”  If you have sailed the North Atlantic, you understand it holds gales that make hurricanes look small, though such gales shriek in places where few live, and get little press.

Nor’easters only get press on this side of the Atlantic when they fail to zip out to sea. Most do, but occasionally a “blocking pattern” causes to them to “stall” just off Cape Cod, or, even more rarely, even further south.  Hurricane Sandy was actually still a warm-core hurricane as it moved ashore, but to verify its own forecast the Hurricane Center “downgraded” Sandy to a nor’easter. Sandy demonstrated how much respect a nor’easter deserves, though there have been worse. A nor’easter in February 1978 gave Cape Cod winds over 100 mph.

I’m getting too old for such nonsense.  I’m in the autumn of my life, and perhaps, just as leaves turn yellow, I’m getting a little yellow myself.

We did have an early frost on September 19, which, as our last frost of the Spring was on May 29, gave us the shortest frost-free period of summer I can remember. However, because I’m old and had other things to do, I failed to weed my garden in late August, and the weeds protected my plants. The weeds got frosted, as my pepper plants beneath were spared.  Since then we have had a second summer, and I actually picked some fine peppers today, on October 18, a month after our first frost.

This is actually a bad omen. I predict a terrible winter, as kindly autumns often hint at cruelty to come.

I make this prediction because I figure I might cause winter to be mild, by predicting bitter cold. It is sheer superstition, sort of like thinking you can make it rain by washing your car.  However the meteorological set-up exists, just as the set-up existed for New England hurricanes, last June.  I can’t recall if I actually predicted hurricanes last June, but if I did, I hexed them all out to sea, according to my superstition. In the same manner I am attempting to hex an awful winter, which seems all too likely to me, clear across the planet into China.

Then I will get to enjoy a kinder and gentler time.  I have really enjoyed the mildness that followed me across that USA when I was on my trip, moving from weather map to weather map.

When I got home I was confronted with a horrible amount of work for a man my age, as an attempt to avoid work backfired. Rather than cutting wood I ordered $900.00 worth, but because I wasn’t home to oversee, 3 of the 4 cords were dumped where my wife parks her car. I had to move three chord (4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet makes a chord) by loading the  back of my pick up, driving it 100 feet, and unloading it where it should have been unloaded.  Fortunately my son helped, but it also helped that the weather was mild, which kept my old muscles loose. It was actually 67 degrees at dawn last week, which is thirty degrees above normal.

Also I got to be outside and just look around and enjoy the foliage. People come from all over the world to see New Hampshire’s foliage in the fall. I always try to look picturesque, like a character in a Norman Rockwell painting, when an un-tinted bubble-bus of gawking Asians comes lurching down a country that was never intended to hold huge vehicles, and I always think that, if Norman Rockwell was still alive, he would paint a picture capturing the beautiful humor of how I look at them, and they look at me.

It is truly beautiful to live here, even if I am old and it is a sort of end. I am grateful for a final fall when the leaves are slow to drift down, even if it is but a respite before a terrible winter. Life has quite enough hardship as it is, and we should not feel guilty when a quieter and more lovely time ambles by.

When I was walking through the gorgeous landscape, across the rustling carpet of gold and crimson leaves, vivid against the sunlit grass, I entered a sunlit grove of trees where the forest floor was striped with the long shadows of autumn. Besides the long stripes made by shadows there were also long, straight stripes of moss, with a small pile of stones at the southern end of each stripe, with the moss vivid in the sunshine which now invaded a glade that had been shaded and moist all summer long.

I paused to wonder at these odd stripes of green moss, flat against the brown forest floor.  Briefly I wondered what on earth could have made them. Then the Sherlock Holmes in my skull abruptly understood they were toppled trees, with a root-ball of dirt and stone at their ends, that had lain on the ground and grown mossy, and final rotted away to flatness, with only the moss remaining, and only a flat pile of stones to show where the root ball once was. Because the trees that grew up among these fallen trees were now roughly 60 years old, I judged the prior grove was flattened in 1954. Hurricane Carol must have flattened all those trees, back when I was only one year old.

I looked around and tried to envision how the scene must have looked, when Carol roared through and flattened the forest in thirty minutes.  What a mess! All the trees down, south to north, with jumbles of dirt made by root-balls, and the scent of torn, green leaves a stink in the hot sunshine.

When I was young I bewailed the fact we never seemed to get hurricanes in New England any more. Now I understand that, midst the hardship of my life, in some ways I’ve been blessed by luck.   People who came before me knew no such luck, and had to display a fortitude I know little about, after Carol.

Today I took some time to be thankful for the luck I’ve lived through, and also to pray that, should this coming winter ask me to display some fortitude, I can match the fortitude of those who came before.