I wrote this in 1999, when I was there.
I actually lived in this. In Wausau. Some mornings the air was so cold you felt your breath freeze in your nostrils as you inhaled. The moisture from your out-breath just solidified on the hairs and passages in your nose as you breathed in.
It is a very strange feeling to have ice crust inside your head. Dry, crackly and cold, as though your nose-hairs turned to crystal in a moment, scratching and breaking as your nostrils flare.
But the cold, absolute as it was, wasn’t horrible; after all I was in a parka, and could go back inside to the gentle heat of the glycol baseboard warmers any time I pussed out. It was instead a pause, a lacuna in life; it was just a moment when the world, sere and blanketed in white, gathered itself to think about the freshness of the coming year.
Snow drifts under the eaves of my home didn’t simply peak; they curled, their tips curving over like a wave stopped, frozen, in the moment of breaking.
That was Wausau, set in the middle of Wisconsin’s cold Northwoods heart. Milwaukee, on Lake Michigan and below the 45th parallel, was much more humid and considerably warmer; traveling north I could feel the ambient change from wet to very dry, very different air at about 50 miles south of Wausau. The entire tone of the atmosphere changed.
And it smelled only of pine.
Overnight, in downtown MKE, we rarely dropped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the warmed sidewalks were never crusted with snow or ice; they were just wet, as though washed by a gentle rain. It was like a Hollywood winter set, for about five months solid. Skyscrapers’ shadows stood sentinel over the most stubborn patches, keeping them slushily crusted with white well into March or even April, even as the grass beneath insisted upon itself.
Wausau was more like a cake, covered in glistening powdered-sugar frosting for a craps’ win of the year.
I liked Wausau. I really did. What made it impossible for me was the daytime duration in winter. Eight hours from sun to sun just wasn’t enough; I rose in darkness, went to work in darkness, went home in darkness. I’m an Arizona boy. I need more light than that.
But I sure do miss the icicles; and one night, in the depth of the cold of the year, I even saw the Aurora Borealis flickering gently in the sky. I watched it for a while, knowing my lover was in my home, in my bed, and I let him sleep while I sat on the patio, shivering brutally in the relentless cold, and enjoyed the quiet majesty.
I didn’t leave everything behind when I left Wisconsin, but I found and lost quite a lot while I was there.
The prose follows the fold.
Aha now I see.
Before the move from Arizona a former ’Sconsintie colleague on query said of winter “you get into it.”
Never knew what that meant till I was in it.
Cold. Yes. Very.
Film cannot. Video cannot. VR cannot. Words might if you work into it. Here let me try:
January clear arctic not like chandelier not like diamond seen within itself but that is a good beginning. Dry air red skin no moisture static more clear than clear no heathaze rippling distance. Shrill only with wind.
January crystals large scuffing across me and car and house and that house is a windtunnel: on leeward side flakes go up in vacuum. Me the winds scour harsh and coldabrasiverazor. Icicles freeze at angles. Wind, the January wind it sings and does what the January wind does.
January wind carries snowdust like sand and these dunes are impossible elewhere, rippled then rounded overcrest and overhung and defying gravity in the physics of crystal cohesion, whtiefoam waves seized at belowzero surfsup.
January those slantwise icicles armlong on eaves, water stopped in motion, crunch clean in mouth in teeth, thrilling in fragmentation, cold clean crystalpure crystalcapture perfect frozen fragments slipping easy into me. Taste of light and sky and free air eagerly danced.
January icicles through my windows, random rainbow refract. Here, here words cannot either, prismsplit pure nature palette.
January dawn sundogs: Ice sunlight paint horizon reflaction, ultimate lensflare, coruscating auburn arced glow, coruscating pulses within, change in moments.
January dawn mushroom breathmist across view to west, rudlit suffusion on soft powdersnowcover, shadows blue in contrast, magenta and cyan, deep in wildrabbit tracks. Pause by warmidling car, inhalations crackglaze in nostrils, eyes and brain overloaded. Perfection. Sharp incisive rigid insertion: This is beauty. Behold, mortal. Freya speaks.
January daytime is azure everywhere. No horizon deepening. Austere white below, denuded annuals and browngreen perennials between dark uneven line before, faultless fadeddenim above orbed by impossible light brightness, argent surging radiance.
(There, sere drive home past snowcrested pasture, Holstein home in finer months, silo barn actually red, and paused on skeleton branch: bald eagle. Dark body white tailfeathers and crown. Unmistakable. Unutterably magnificent. Limned etched unforgettable in silverhalide memory, sepiablue.)
January night crystals jewelchest on velvet. Diamond. Ruby. Sapphire. Topaz. Emerald. Sirius. Pleiades. Procyon. Betelgeuse. Bellatrix. Casseopeia. Orion and belt. Dipperhandle optical binary. Perfectcut no twinkle like they look in space or a vault of black with pinspot illumination.
January planets, sputniks (and murr of my greytabbyfuzz longwhisker Sputnik in the cold and dark, flufftail through fingers, paw kneading my palm, those five catsharp claws holding hands). There shines Jupiter twinkling least, yellow, Galileans almost here the air is so sharp. Mars, russet, Bradbury’s Iowa that never was, halcyon loss. Sliced Luna cratered face ridging, lost or found or found and lost again moon. Venus gold one hour before suncrescent, clouds radiant and hideous death.
January cold so cold it incises, sharp deep and joyful contrast and home, home. Frosty nostrils but warm downwrapped torso. A cap for the eartips. Gloves or mittens (mine have a distinctive “G” logo embroidered). No wind is best. At ten below stand still and let the heatcolumn surround you and look: Just look.
For a moment it is yours. Flawless it is yours.
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