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.


Wisconsin Winter

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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