At dusk this afternoon, a simple saunter around the perimeter of the CHS parking lots turned into an adventure trek fraught with peril. As I speed walked alongside the woods, the shadiest part of the blacktop rim, skies darken and I sense my tennis shoes are starting to lose traction. Surely not. It was 38 degrees just a few minutes ago … wasn’t it? I do a test: a couple of intentional shoe scuffs turn skids confirms that the watery blacktop is turning to ice — right as I’m walking on it. I pull my gloved hands out of my coat pockets, extra warmth sacrificed in a flash to have hands available for a fall. This familiar trail has turned Alpine, Himalayan, so I leave it to pick my way through snowy grass and stiffening mud, the mucky, rough terrain being the only safe passage. In those thin, frosty shoes, my feet begin to numb. This puts me in mind of climbing Mt. Rainier or Uncompahgre Peak when conditions turn. Here those precipitous heights have gone horizontal, sprawled out Midwest-flat; still, the rugged patches that stretch on and on are pocked with black ice, bubbling water, icy-crusted little drifts.
Life can turn treacherous in a moment. We all know that and so make the most careful plans we can to keep it from doing so. My careful plan failed: the 20-degree temperature plummet turned simple water into a serious obstacle, that wily opponent — ice.
Early in high school, most students are treated to an Introduction to Fiction via simple and stark categories like Man vs. Nature. This trek was one of those. As I turned the corner heading out toward the west with its open horizon, the wind roared in, knocking me slightly sideways. I trudged on, head down, my wind-teary eyes watching each step. I thought of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” — always the illustration story for Man vs. Nature in ninth grade. (Spoiler Alert: The fire got built but it doesn’t light; when it finally flames up with the last match, a big clot of snow falls from a tree limb and snuffs it.) Nature wins.
My favorite writer of rural, domestic reflections has died. He possessed voluminous and precious knowledge of churches, river valleys, art, religious history, and, especially, of country ways and crafts. He knew who lived where, the famous and not so famous, especially in Sussex where he lived. This was the great Ronald Blythe who left us at age 100 in mid-January. A wise one even in his early 40s, he made it his job to capture in arresting prose all kinds of things about rural ways in England that even nearly 70 years ago had been almost forgotten. Blythe published Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village in l969. It stunned the world — especially those who cherish how common people live and the deep craft and knowing that has allowed human life to sustain itself through thick and thin for thousands of years. Blythe lived a single life in an ancient house (Bottengoms Farm) near the River Stour. He wrote many books, none more influential than Akenfield: it was a standard in college classrooms for a generation. The book remains an invaluable recording of the deep complexity of life among the unsung. It has never been out of print.
In an early essay in Blythe’s 1996 Word from Wormingford, he taught me a haunting lesson I should have already known, a lesson about what winter really meant to people not so long ago. Describing a Christmas card with a famous painting on it, he writes: in “Frans de Momper’s ‘Village in Winter,’ there are a hundred seventeenth-century windows looking out on the anti-hypothermian revels of Flanders to see skating, huggings, snowballing, anything to keep the circulation going. I can hear the river cracking, the rushes whipping, the crows protesting around the spire, and I am relieved to contrast this cold snap with that cold season in which one had to play to stay alive. The windows there are black holes which say, ‘Go out to get warm.’”
“Go out to get warm” — in winter. In Sussex, flints glittering on the ground speak of people more ancient than those long ago Flemish folks, people who lived eons before the luxury of literature, painting, or central heating was possible. Their human touch/human history kept only in worked flint. And what about here? As I walk on this land that felt the breath of the Wisconsin Sheet of the last ice age, I think of those long, long ice ages of yore and the several times that Earth almost completely lost life. (Scientists tell us it happened five times; many say that we humans threaten to make it a sixth.) Have a look at Peter Brannon’s The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions for a powerful telling.
All of this everything is part of each moment we live. The plain fact that we spend most of our time working on our ephemeral and (to us) important projects saves our lives as much as our habitable climate does. We can still build our fires.
As I crunch stoically along the irregular but safer terrain now, back on the macadam heading home, the wind now at my back, my footing surer, I think of water in other forms: the water that has just cooked the supper rice, the broth in the soup, the glasses of water we swallow each day to keep body and soul together. Water disarms us and is us.
In the morning I’ll meet the ice again with more appropriate footwear and thick mittens. I’ll walk on it, enter CHS, have a swim, and then stand under a hot shower before walking on ice again. Invigorated by water, heated by water, endangered by water, entirely dependent on water. In winter we see ourselves stark yet fully alive, gaunt as bare trees that hold their lives without moving. Glaciers grind — and melt. And we can make soup.
Try not to deny yourself this best collaboration between water and eating. Make some soup from scratch. No culture in ten millenia hasn’t done so. Heat up that pot, drizzle in a bit of oil, chop up some onions and garlic, maybe some celery and carrots (The French call this mirepoix). Now what sounds good? Tomato, kale, barley? Coconut milk, sweet potato, broth, shrimp, bell peppers? Your choices are endless. Grandma has recipes and so does the internet. Maybe feed a neighbor or friend too. Our FISH food pantry always appreciates those canned soups and pastas and sauce and cereal especially in winter. Forget the Cheerios. Donate some oatmeal and other soon-to-be hot cereals in boxes. With only the addition of water, life warms up a bit again.
Spring is less than two months away. Feb. 2 (Candlemass and Ground Hog Day) is halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. Go hug the fire. Have some bread, a bowl of hot soup, and know most decidedly that you are alive.
Dr. Helen Hudson contributes her Real Food column to the Journal Review.