Two Days at the End of Winter in Rural Maine: Inside and Out (4/6/2014)

The plumber called today, early. Thankfully, I thought, as I turned over in bed to grab the phone and rubbed my eyes in the morning twilight. I’d been eagerly awaiting that call, since our toilet – our only toilet – had been nearly stopped up for a couple of days. Longer than that actually, since I – whose grandfather and two of his sons had been plumbers by trade – fancied myself to be a kind of down-home expert on toilets; and I had been using my own five-foot long plumber’s snake off and on, for months, to clear blockages. But to no avail. It was time. Even I have limits, when it comes to plumbing. Hence the plumber’s call, rousing me from my peaceful slumber.

I knew the guy. I’d called on him before, in the aftermath of other – failed – efforts of mine with the house’s plumbing. I drain the domestic water of our summer home every late fall, so that it doesn’t freeze during the brutal Maine winter. Sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, I forget about a section in one of the copper water pipes. The result: that part of the pipe freezes, of course. And, in the spring, when I turn on the water pump from our deep-drilled well outside, I hear that deadly fzzzzz, that telltale sound of water gushing through a crack in the copper pipe that froze and split. So I call Mark, the plumber, and he comes out and replaces that section of the pipe for me. I long ago gave up trying to sweat the copper pipes myself. One time, working on an elbow joint underneath a wood cabinet in our kitchen, I almost set the house on fire with my torch. So praise the Lord for Mark, I say.

Mark showed up carrying the same kind of plumber’s snake I’d been using. That was a disappointment. I’d thought that he would have brought the kind of machine-driven, diamond-headed snake that the real pros in the city use. But I told him to give it a try anyway. He did. He jammed and twisted that snake ferociously for some time, as often I had done. The result: we poured some water down the toilet and that water sloshed happily into the downpipe and thence, thankfully, out into our septic tank. Rats, I thought. How could hehave done that, doing the same thing that I’d done many times before?

“Dunno,” said Mark. Then he looked down into the toilet bowl. “Wazzat?!,” he exclaimed. He put on a pair of surgical gloves (true), reached down into the bowl and pulled out — a fork! A dinner fork! Two of its points were bent in opposing directions, making it look like the under-structure of one of those tiny multi-colored paper umbrellas that you get at tourist restaurants when you order a Hawaiian drink. My own labors with the plumber’s snake over the preceding months had perhaps done that kind of damage to that fork, even as I had apparently jammed it more securely in place down in the depths. I couldn’t resist. I told Mark: “The challenge, then, isn’t the fork in the road, it’s the fork in the toilet.” “Yup,” he said, without any sign whatsoever of a smile.

How did that fork get in there? No doubt in my mind. One of our toddler grandkids, had thrown it in there. Maxwell and Marlow – both of whom I had baptized in a huge white crock outdoors a couple of summers before, with much well-water from that very plumbing system – love to throw things into watery places, no matter where or of what kind. I knew, by then, that they were particularly fond of heaving small, toy cars into watering cans or into the dishwater or amidst recently watered garden plants or even into the stream outside. But a fork!? In the toilet!?

April 3, 2014. From the dark bowls of the earth, to the bright heavens. From the twilight to the sunshine. Cascading, overwhelmingly resplendent sunshine.

Over more than four decades of married life, I have learned the key to marital happiness. I do what I’m told. In this instance, I found myself out back in our perennial garden, somewhat bewildered at first, but happy. It was a strange sensation, because that garden was then covered with three feet of snow.

This had been an unusually cold winter, even by Maine standards, so the snow still appeared pristine. It was dry, through and through, although layered, here and there, with sheets of solid ice, signaling times of thawing during the past winter. My assignment: to clear as much snow as I could from the perennial garden. The rationale: since the perennial garden is on the north side of the house, due to the shadow from the house it would remain covered with snow and, well into the late spring, with thick ice, at the very time when the snow and ice overlaying all the surrounding earth would have melted and signs of green would be emerging everywhere.

Whatever grumbling, however, that had lurked within my soul while I was layering my body with my outdoor winter clothes in order to shovel the garden (!), was soon dissipated. The brightness was indeed overwhelming. Not just the great ball of fire over my head in the cloudless blue sky, but the reflection of its rays everywhere, shining forth even from the precipitous hill behind me, where the barren trees scarcely inhibited its rays.

I once read that First Nation peoples in the Arctic have dozens of words for what we call “snow.” (Strikingly, it has also been reported that they have no word to name the bird we call “robin” – even when they see one, these days — since, prior to the advent of climate change in our time, those ancient peoples never saw a robin!) During the midday when I was shoveling the perennial garden, I had some sense of what those First Nation peoples might have experienced with the changes of their seasons so far north and the changes of their weather, above all when they contemplated the contours and the colors and the textures of the snow all around them.

When my brother and I were kids, maybe not yet ten and seven, we used to frolic for hours in the deep winter snows of exurban Buffalo, New York, where we grew up. We dug tunnels. We cut out blocks of snow in order to build make-shift igloos in a ewe grove, where we would sometimes sit in the quiet and just listen to our own breathing. At those times, the snow was enchanted, as far as we were concerned.

I felt some of that enchantment as I carved out blocks of snow and then carefully hoisted them to what I knew as the field behind me. As a large trench emerged, maybe forty feet long, three feet wide, and three feet deep, I recalled those magic times that my brother and I had enjoyed together in the snow. Warmed by the sun and protected from the brisk winds by my winter garments and by the trench in which I stood, I also recalled, as is my wont, the elegant simplicity of St. Francis’s great hymn to the sun.

Francis himself probably was not thinking of the glories of the sun reflected on the crystal snow, although I would not rule out such a thought. He was most likely celebrating the sun as the earth’s fountain of green fecundity in Tuscany. Either way, or all the more so, both ways, I paused frequently that midday to salute our brother, the sun. That I also needed to pause in order to regain my breath and to renew my strength, was also true. But that made those times of contemplating the sun reflected and refracted on the pure white snow all the more revitalizing, body and soul.