I like punctuation marks. I like to know when something ends, when it’s over.
That is why this winter has just about driven me to the point of madness. It’s been a sentence in a William Faulkner novel, winding capriciously from one place to another, picking up subject after subject with tentacle-like conjunctions and prepositions, offering jolts of unexpected discomfort with exclamations and interjections, creating confusion with unpronounceable words and unusual syntax.
It’s been an Emily Dickinson poem. Lovely. At times. But more often difficult. To withstand. Or understand. Or even stand. On the ice.
In an ordinary winter, I know that on New Year’s Day, I can clinch my jaws and hunch my shoulders against the coming cold and simply soldier through until the first daffodil appears along the ditch at the old house at the crossroads. This, however, was no ordinary winter. The dully cold days of January gave way to a foreign February, days of rain and ice followed by something impersonating spring, which fled quickly in the wake of more rain and ice and wind.
And it wasn’t just the weather. Three Friday afternoons in a row, I stood in a line at a funeral home visitation. On the Sunday after one of those Fridays, I stood to give the eulogy for one of my dearest friends.
When March arrived all sunny and balmy, it was clearly in disguise, but I was so eager, so desperate, really, for winter — outside and in — to disappear that I embraced it crazily, only to be betrayed once again as its true intentions were revealed as soon as enough windows had been opened, enough arms had been bared, enough shoes had been shed. Winter wasn’t over.
I stood at the window looking at the first ruffly sprouts of leaves on the saw-tooth oaks, laughing just a little sarcastically at their audacity. Nature can be so naive.
Then I noticed something I’d not seen when I got home the night before. The narrow strip of land between what passes for the yard at Sandhill and the branch that borders the pond, the little slip of woods where scrub oaks and bay trees, grapevines and Queen Anne’s lace, kudzu and honeysuckle grow and meld into a particular ecosystem, had been burned off. The dead undergrowth that, over the winter, had created something like a choke collar on the trunks and stems was gone, and in its place was a flat black layer of soot and the faint smell of sulfur.
I suspect it was Keith who struck the match that started the burn — leaned over in the wind, cupped his hand around the tiny little flame and held it close to the tinder that would ignite all the debris. He stood there — I know this without having seen it — for a few minutes to make sure that the line of orange was moving steadily with the breeze and then left the fire to do its work.
It’s what you do in spring. You ready the land for something new to grow by eliminating the last vestiges of the crop that was there before. It doesn’t lessen the value of that previous crop; it just brings it to an end. It just adds a punctuation mark.
I stared for a moment at the black line. I thought I heard it say, “One cannot always depend on nature to signal the turn of seasons. Sometimes one must mark the change oneself. Sometimes one must decide and take action. Sometimes one must light a match, start a fire and whisper to oneself, ‘This is where it ends.’ ”