The Call of the North

The unrelenting first-of-March sun warms the tan grass over the Flint Hills of Kansas to the mid-50s. A week ago today it was 80 degrees. 80 in February. The people here, the natives and those from further south, are celebrating the return of spring. They praise the break of the winter and the return to warm weather while I am still waiting for an actual winter to settle in. This has been my third winter here, and I’m yet to see a winter settle its cold bones into the prairie.

I come from a long line of northern people who steam in the cold. My father, me, my son, we all run hotter than the average person. During subzero temperatures I can be found shoveling snow in my undershirt and jeans, steam rising from my bare head and shoulders, ice freezing in my beard. And I love every minute of it. I revel in the weather of the north.

My father felt a strong call of the north—in the early 1970s he left Kalamazoo for Alaska where he stayed for more than a decade. My mother followed him, and I was born there just in time for Green Up; I lived my first two years in that cold tundra state. The frozen muck and year-round snow-capped mountains are a permanent part of my subconscious. The comfort of a child’s memory.

And yet when I answered the call to go abroad to seek my fortune I moved from the comfort of lake-effect bands and perpetually gray skies to the sun bleached and shifting weather of Kansas. It gets cold here, sure. More than once a winter the weather breaks into the teens and the famous prairie winds drive that temperature dead through you like a nail. But you suffer the cold in the sunshine and in the full knowledge that tomorrow it will be 45 degrees.

I miss winter. Real, deep, unrelenting winter. The kind of winter that feels like the end of all things—entropy realized into the dull white noise of Niflheim. Snow that falls, freezes, and builds strata, each layer nearer the frozen ground more dense than the one above. But it isn’t that I like bite of cold in my fingertips, or the work it takes to heat a home in that kind of winter, but it is that stillness that makes springtime exalted.

In Michigan the sun can hardly be seen from November to April—just the odd sunny morning to break the gray, cloud coated sky. But when the sun comes out in April it is an explosion of sights long dead.

The ground reveals itself slowly, the matted down grass and vines stretching back towards the sky. The trees burst with green, and even the city air smells of a damp forest floor. The bold heads of crocuses burst through the thinning snow. Water from melting snow trickles new valleys into the mud; rivers that will probably never be there again, but are for those few weeks when the snow melts. The snow-melt water meandering towards the lakes.

Everything breaks free of the ice and snow. It answers the panicked call of the north—there are a precious few months in the north before the world goes still again. It is this death, this stillness that reminds the people of the north of our mortality. Everything dies. The sun creeps away towards the horizon, and for some of us disappears under it for days on end.

This is why I love winter, the cold, the beauty of a snow covered forest, but most of all the stillness of the drawn back bow ready to unleash life into its frenzy. A day has its beginning and end. Our lives, the lives of the Gods, all lives have beginnings and ends. The deep set winter is a reminder of the end of all things. The beginning of all things.

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