The Woods Are Lovely, Dark And Deep

Whenever winter starts lumbering into what ought to be its latter stages – usually in March, but sometimes in February – there will be a moment when my senses play a trick on me, when despite all evidence and logic to the contrary, I become convinced that winter is effectively over.

Usually when I start feeling this way, there will be at least a hint of warmth in the air, or the snow will have temporarily melted away to reveal bare earth and the tangled dead remains of last year’s vegetation.  In other words, there will be something that evokes, however tenuously, the promise of spring.

But tonight there were no such harbingers, not even of the most illusory sort.  On the contrary, it looked as though winter were just getting settled in for a lengthy if not permanent stay.  Yesterday’s slush and snow had frozen solid in the wake of the wind that swept down from the north early this morning, and people swept by in their fur hats and trailing scarves.  Nobody seemed in a mood to stop and savor the crisp evening air.

Yet there I was crossing the street when suddenly I felt it.  Since I was only traveling a hundred yards or so, I hadn’t bothered with a hat or gloves, or even with fully zipping up my jacket, and yet I wasn’t the slightest bit cold.  If you’d asked me to sit down right there on the pavement and have a leisurely chat or even a picnic, I would have unhesitatingly agreed.  Winter had not just lost its sting, it had become wholly irrelevant.

Here are the facts of the matter: the temperature was 28 degrees Fahrenheit, -2 Celsius, and forecast to remain in that general vicinity for at least the next 10 days.  The date was the 11th of February, a full 37 days before the ostensible arrival of spring, and no doubt longer than that before the city fully emerges from its frozen slumber.

But the facts had been driven deep beneath the waves of memory and fate: for me, in that moment, winter had ended.  No doubt it will be back again, probably as soon as I poke my head out my front door again, but for now, it is as nothing to me.

You’d think this would be an exhilarating feeling, but actually it’s a bit scary and depressing, kind of like being intoxicated enough to forget one’s troubles while remaining sufficiently clear-headed to know that things will almost certainly be worse in the morning.

I’m reminded of a similar experience, this time on a night in early March, when spring really did seem to be in sight, and the clouds hung so low over the treetops that they seemed like woolen blankets swathing the world, or at least our little corner of it, in preternatural warmth.  I was in Ohio, hanging out in a voluptuous pine forest carpeted with several inches of exquisitely soft needles that begged me to lie forever wrapped in their embrace.

How did I come to be there?  Perhaps it matters, perhaps not, but if you happened to read This Day In History: February 4, 1968, you might recall that after a spot of bother with the local constabulary I had found it necessary to leave town in order to avoid further unpleasantness, and that not long afterward, still more unpleasantness ensued, in the form of a visit from the FBI.

Having narrowly escaped their clutches, I spent a sleepless night in a $2 skid row hotel, wedging my bed up under the doorknob to keep the howling winos and predatory lunatics at bay.  In the morning, I hacked off my hair with nail scissors and dyed what was left of it black before boarding a bus for Ohio, where a friend had told me I could hide out until things blew over.

He hadn’t thought this plan through very well, nor had I.  There was no place for me to stay, and I had spent the last of my money on my bus ticket.  We walked the streets of his sleepy little town, grateful at least that the weather had turned unusually mild, and gradually being joined by the handful of other countercultural types – perhaps eight or ten of them altogether – who lived there.

They didn’t often encounter out-of-town hippies, especially ones who were fugitives from justice and had chosen to go “underground,” so they were excited to meet me, and eager to show me what passed for a good time around those parts.  This turned out to involve shoplifting bottles of cough medicine from the local pharmacy and guzzling it for its semi-psychedelic effect.

By the time we were fully under its influence, night had fallen and we’d wandered into the aforementioned pine forest.  I don’t know what part my chemically altered perceptions played in this, but it felt like the most magical place I had ever been.  I took off my ragged army coat and threw it to the ground, convinced that I would never need it again.  “It’s perfect here,” I whispered.  “We could live here forever.”

“Yeah, we could,” the others agreed.  “We should go get some extra clothes and some food and just stay right here.  This is way better than living in a boring old house.”

“No,” I said, realizing the spell would be broken if anybody left, even for a few minutes.  “Forget extra clothes or food.  Everything we need is right here, under the trees.”  I lay back and moved my arms to and fro, making a pine needle version of a snow angel.  Soon everybody was doing the same.  We couldn’t stop marveling at how soft the forest floor was, how warm the night, how nearly in reach of our fingertips the sky.

Hours passed, and hard upon the echoing whine of a distant train whistle came the sound of a clock striking midnight somewhere.  A chill that hadn’t been there before seemed to settle over the forest, followed by rustlings and stirrings of restlessness in the pine needles around me.

“Yeah, I should probably get going,” someone said.  “My parents will be wondering what happened to me.”

“Me too, I’ve still got homework I have to do before morning.”

One by one they made their excuses and drifted away, despite my pleas and protests.  “How can you give up already?” I kept asking.  “Don’t you see, we really could live here forever.”

Then only three of us were left, and I could tell that my remaining companions were anxious to be gone as well.  The night really had gotten chillier now, and I reluctantly retrieved my coat from where I had thrown it.

“You’re not going to leave me all alone here in the woods, are you?” I asked.

“You know, it’s not really much of a woods,” one of them said.  “More like a big vacant lot.  Can’t you see there are houses on either side and across the street?”

I hated him for saying that, but it was true.  And I could tell that it really pained him to leave me out there in the cold, but that within a few minutes he was going to work up the courage to do it anyway.  He started to say something, stopped, then began again.

“In my parents’ backyard there’s a treehouse.  You could sleep in it, as long as you can be super quiet so they don’t hear you climbing up there.”

The other boy said, “Yeah, that wouldn’t be so bad.  In fact I’ll stay there with you, at least until it gets light.  But then I have to hurry home before my parents wake up.”

The night seemed to grow warm again, enough so that it no longer mattered that I didn’t have a sleeping bag or even a blanket.  My army coat would be enough to keep me warm, and I lay there feeling at one with the wooden planks that supported me, listening to the sound of the boy snoring a few feet away, and marveling at the idea that I could be sleeping outdoors in the first week of March.

Surely everything was going to be all right from now on.  Why, it would soon be summer, and it wouldn’t matter whether or not I had a house.  The FBI would never find me as long as I slept in treehouses and pine forests, and as for my friends and family, maybe they would come and join me.  After an hour or two of these pleasant fantasies, I felt as though I’d like to go to sleep, but discovered that I couldn’t.  The chemicals still coursing through my body had me in their thrall, to the point where closing my eyes made things brighter rather than darker, and that wasn’t even counting the awful visions that had begun their slow march across my consciousness and conscience.

Around 2 or 3 am I started to shiver; my trusty old army coat was no longer doing its job, and no matter which way I twisted or turned, I couldn’t get any warmer.  I finally drifted off for an hour or two, awakening to a bleary gray dawn and discovering that while I’d slept, I’d been covered with a light dusting of snow.

The boy who’d spent the night nearby was hurriedly leaving, fearful that his parents would discover he hadn’t been home all night, and I too would have to beat a hasty retreat before someone in the house spotted me.  Too late: below me the kitchen light came on, and I lay motionless for the better part of an hour, watching various members of the family drink their coffee, butter their toast, and pick at their eggs and bacon.

Finally the last of them left and I was free to make my own escape.  It was a Monday morning, but had the feeling of a Sunday, empty, lost, hopeless, and above all, frozen in body as well as soul.  I walked the streets for another day before someone took me in, and as though I had been the groundhog descrying his shadow, winter settled back in for another six weeks, lasting until the middle of April, when a freak snowstorm buried the tentative green shoots of spring and sent me into a slough of despair that would linger well into summer.

But I lived, after a fashion, and I learned, again after a fashion, that cherish them as I may, my senses could and would lie to me at every opportunity.  And that no matter how many times they did, I would never give up wanting, ever so much, to believe them.

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