It is nighttime in Middleton, Wisconsin, and the current temperature is -11 F, the coldest it has been or will be all winter, and the coldest it’s been here for the past five winters. Outside the sliding door to our balcony — the only window, though a substantial one, in our apartment — snowfall from three combined storms over the past month rests, frozen into a single, yard-shaped mass, a micro-taiga between the apartment building and the treeline that marks the beginning of the conservancy out back. The snow is some six inches deep; disconcertingly large raccoon tracks are preserved in it.
It has not snowed in almost two weeks.
Right now, a good swath of the Midwest — as far east, even, as New York — is at the mercy of a semi-phenomenon known as a “polar vortex.” If you want the full scientific breakdown, feel free to haul yourself out of the Chthulhu Mythos hole into which you’ve dug yourself on Wikipedia, and read up on it. Essentially, a large — read, “several states wide” — pocket of Arctic air somehow got flung away from where it belongs, and came to rest above our unsuspecting heads… not to mention inside our engine blocks, between our toes and on the inside of the window in our homes, in the form of ice crystals.
As a newly converted Wisconsonite, I deal with things neither by over-analyzing — I save that for this gig — nor by avoidance, nor by blowing past them. No, the preferred method here is to consciously, deliberately, bore straight through them. Last winter, we were hit with a monumental snow storm that lasted all night and into the following morning. This being Madison, all the interstates, highways and main roads were plowed and salted by 5 a.m. in plenty of time for my wife to get up and go to work. Our little side street — Branch Street — remained smothered under a full 10 inches of snow, as did the parking lot to our building. So we went outside at 7 a.m. and shoveled a path from her car to the street. It took her an hour to drive 10 miles, but she made it.
Later, a city snowplow took care of the street but, in doing so, re-blocked the entrance to our driveway. We had little food and, more importantly, no beer. I walked the mile to our co-op, lugging back six full bags of groceries. I think I listened to The National, going both ways. This morning, for the first time since we moved here, my car refused to start because of the cold; it was -17. I got out, wrapped my scarf around my face, and trudged off to work.
Viewed from a distance, things like this don’t seem real; they are an illustration, an illusion, someone else’s whim made freakishly corporeal. The visuals themselves are startling: on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan, almost directly across from Chicago, a group of lighthouses has been thoroughly and utterly consumed by ice. The lake winds, however, have rendered the ice’s formation something akin to a Tolkien-esque landscape: the lighthouses themselves look swathed in a mixture of white hair and tree roots; impossibly huge icicles curl downward like talons, still pulsing with the adrenaline of having struck. On the ground, its appearance is rougher and slightly round, giving the impression of a spilled truckload of marzipan brains.
In photographs — a medium that always implies distance, whether physical, emotional or time-related — these images are surreal; they exist outside of the universe of anyone who has not personally witnessed them. If they were in my backyard one morning, though, I might twist open the blinds to the sliding door, take a sip of coffee and remark “Huh.” I would then get back to my book, or Plants vs. Zombies.
It’s the same way I viewed Wisconsin’s cold — when we were thinking about moving here — from down in Georgia, also a place whose climate is underestimated by people who have never visited. The actuality of the thing — the cold, seemingly a living, breathing entity concerned with little else than alternately flexing its muscles and preening — didn’t sink in until I was here, among it, engulfed by it. And it did sink in: into my clothes, my skin, my bones, my life and world. I have seen it: there is in fact, in the words of Cormac McCarthy, “Cold to crack the stones.”
To paraphrase another favorite author, the poet David Berman once wryly justified his smoking habit by saying that he viewed cancer as a tree on a hill that was so far away, it never seemed to get any closer, and therefore no more real. I fear that there are circumstances, that there are versions of our world towards which we are hurtling, gleefully huffing and puffing, unawares. That we will not see them until we arrive, among them; that we will become conscious of this, just as lightning strikes the top of the tree, the one we think we’re stopping to rest under.