Winter blasts us with four blizzards nearly back-to-back. Snow explodes - avalanches tumbling from a sullen sky. By mid-afternoon, opaque waves of white render every other color obsolete: a sort of snow-blindness. Swift sheets of wind shape fleeing ghosts that haunt corners and circle trees. The snow provides its own brightness, sucking up residual sunlight and beaming it back to us like a flat, cold sun.  
We’re prepared: split wood columned beside the woodstove, a can of maple syrup for sugar on snow, flashlights in every room. Kevin, my husband, has a stack of New Yorkers. I am reading a book on the Inuit, a culture inseparable from, and reliant upon, winter. The Inuit word for winter is ukivq, which is also the word for year and the long Maine winter can indeed feel like a year. The Inuit consider extreme conditions and the lengthy absence of daylight a time for dreaming, storytelling, communicating with the spirits, as if the distraction of sunlight obfuscates clarity. It is an enviable purity similar to the Buddhist philosophy of seeing the world as it is and finding the joy in it. 
The fire crackles, spits sparks of red and blue, the air redolent with burning wood. Our house, a warm cave carved into the cold, has grown a shell of snow. I rest my fingers against the flake-dusted window that reflects my transparent face, turbulence whirling behind it as though some spirit wind moves though me. Pines jitterbug to a fierce melody. Chickadees dart at birdfeeders then soar away as though snatched by the wind.  I remove my fingers from the glass, their frosty shape gradually fading like an old photograph in too much light.
There is never a day that we don’t go out. The Inuit word, Sila, roughly translates as the breath of the world, consciousness, weather and so much more. Kevin and I need Sila, need that breath. In late afternoon, we dress in snowsuits, strap on snowshoes, battle the wind for control of the door and go out. A merciless gust steals my breath. Stiffness seizes me as though my limbs are frozen. The air vibrates, a wind instrument playing a tuneless scale. We shoe across the back yard into the woods where we’re sheltered by pine and hemlock, branches bowed beneath the snowy weight. The orange flagging Kevin tied to individual trees to mark a path is hidden by snow that has caterpillared up tree trunks. We look for landmarks, but there has been a shift, the familiar and unfamiliar residing in each other. We have been relocated to a country of ephemera: growing mounds of snowdrifts, miniature hills birthing on tree boughs, newly recorded animal markings that vanish even as we watch. Kevin brushes tree-trunks with a gloved hand, seeking flags with little success and we concentrate, instead, on plowing through the white world around us. 
Thick layers cover our boots and threaten the theft of our snowshoes, our journey narrated by snowshoe tracks splayed out behind us. Just as birds ate Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, the falling snow will eat our tracks. I scale rising drifts by grasping tree trunks, quickly drenched with perspiration beneath my jacket and snowpants. Even my fingers and toes, originally protesting the ten-degree temperature with numbness, are comfortable. 

There is a joke in Maine; if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes, but this year’s contrasts have been startling. The preceding week brought fifty to fifty-five degree temperatures, broke weather records and deposited a false patina of spring. Kevin and I strolled near-by Ogunquit, a tourist town mostly shuttered in winter. Visitors, giddy in the January thaw, bought hot chocolate and donuts from one of the few open shops. Kevin, a research scientist whose work involves trees and global climate change, paused to examine prematurely spouting pussy willows, those furry precursors of spring.
“Nearly two months early,” he said, running his fingers over the buds. 
 The willows were not alone in their confusion as to what season it was: oak and maple buds were swelling, the sharp tips of daffodils poking through layers of slushy ice. We walked between two closed hotels to reach Marginal Way, a cliff walk mobbed with natives taking advantage of the warmth, a few teenagers in Bermuda shorts, most of us wearing sneakers rather than boots. Strangers greeted each other with “Beautiful day.” The cliff path winding along the ocean was alternately puddled or icy as snow from the previous week had repetitively melted and froze. We’d all regressed to clumsy toddlers as we gingerly navigated patches of ice. The ocean smacked the cliffs with thick veils of white foam as waves lifted and dropped with unrestrained power. The sky was the flat blue of blown glass and temporarily cloudless. I understood the perils of global climate change, yet couldn’t help feeling energized after a week of shrouded skies, perleroneg, the sense of being crazed by extended darkness, vanquished. 
The sun’s rose-tinged descent by four o’clock seemed incongruous with the spring weather, as though the warmth could somehow extend daylight. We headed home, reluctant to let go of the day. Our son called just as we got there, told us about taking his daughters, two-year-old Sadie and four-year-old Ceiligh, out to the park near his house.  I spoke briefly to each as they informed me, with some sadness, that their snowman had melted. I told them that the opportunity to build other snowman was likely. The following morning the temperature dropped sharply and snow pounded us as though avenging the warmth of the previous days. 

Those soaring temperatures had encouraged the formation of vernal pools in our woods way ahead of their traditional spring arrival. The Inuit call spring immaturpuq, “when the earth receives its first water,” and vernal pools, “the first water” are spring’s welcome harbingers, amoebic-like sacs of snowmelt that nourish various species from infancy to adulthood. We struggled to avoid stepping into these thinly iced bowls even as they sucked snow down their sides like quicksand, splitting the ground into snaking ditches. Again and again we encountered narrow streams widening into miniature lakes, sometimes plunging into them as the snow caved beneath our feet. 
There seemed a literary quality to this juxtaposition of winter and spring crammed together, how the fiery heat of snow against my cheeks echoed July sun, a reminder of the smooth flow of the seasons. I marveled at how nature had perfected a continuum carefully balanced to sustain life, each season’s process one of death and rebirth: spring laboriously conquering winter, summer’s abundance running rampant over spring, autumn’s blazing take-down of summer, winter’s shortened days forcing life underground, then the expanding light of spring renewing the cycle. Kevin and I have watched the growing disruptions with dismay. Autumnal breaks in summer with forty-degree weather that incites premature senescence in trees; spring-like fissures in winter, rising temperatures waking buds that will freeze in the plunge back to frigidity; seasonal havoc occurring more frequently and more intensely each passing year.
Late afternoon’s last gasping bursts of ivory heralded the end of the latest storm. The yard was a pale lunarscape that ran into the darkness of the woods. The austerity of this rippled white deepened the greened density just beyond. The rising boulders of our ancient granite quarry had morphed into a sprawl of something softer, rounder. Winter in Maine is not just a season but a location, sign-posted in layers of cold-white drifts and gritty ice.
Kevin went outside to snow-blow the driveway while I raked the roof of the woodshed beside our buried deck, the raked snow contributing to the mountain that made roof and deck a single level. When I was done, I sat on the snow-mountain and admired the variegated shades of soft gray that quilted the sky. The cold was so intense that breathing seemed an aerobic activity, yet peace had taken hold.  The wind had stopped its moaning and quiet was its own sound, although it’s never really quiet. There’s the rapid run of a squirrel up a tree, the flap of chickadees at the birdfeeder, the marauding wind through the spruce and pine. Once when I visited a friend in central Maine who lived near a frozen lake, we listened to the ringing, humming, groaning of cracking ice as the afternoon passed. 
“The earth speaking,” he told me with glowing face; remembering that I think, Sila.
By the time Kevin and I went inside to eat dinner, it was fully dark. Clouds obfuscated evening light, landscape indistinct in the absence of moon and stars. This blurry vista, sometimes occurring after a blizzard, has always appeared apocalyptic to me, a reminder of how fragile and yet resilient everything is and of how carelessly we challenge that resilience. 
I looked out at the camouflaging layers, knowing there would be more to come. Snow sometimes remains on the ground well into spring. One May I flew home from California and looked down at a patchwork of white, green and brown. That lingering snow is one reason winter feels a year long, yet snow is vital to the ecology of Maine, indeed to all snow-laden areas. It is a blanket that insulates life germinating underground. The year we had little snow and frigid temperatures, half our garden plants didn’t return, crops suffered, and there was a shortage of food for migrating bird.
 In the middle of the night I was woken by wind that had returned with renewed ferocity. It circled the house like a growling dog. I opened my eyes to an incandescent glow; the room’s contents hued in hazy silver. It was cold, the wood stove long out, and I shivered as I walked to the window, which framed a startlingly bright full moon, the snow beneath it a spill of soft opalescence. Shadows crept across the yard like scurrying animals as the wind seized everything it could. Oaks and maples, reduced to their essential skeletons in winter, were bathed in pearled-white. Fleeing clouds scrolled a manuscript of sharp white stars out behind them. An owl flew by, its shadow looming over a scurrying rodent that vanished behind the snowbound rock wall. The deep moans of the wind seeped in as if by osmosis. Wind and trees engaged in a battle of strength as the wind furiously shook the trees. I knew that by daylight a few would not have survived the assault.

The temperature the next morning was minus four and the air seemed fragile as crystal, as if it might shatter from the mere act of moving though it. The sun shed pale gold over the trees, their shadows wavering columns across the yard. The radio spoke of unusually cold air. I pulled on a heavy sweater, lined jeans, and wool socks then went downstairs. Kevin, awake earlier than usual, had lit the wood stove and made coffee. As I poured myself a cup he opened the door, bundled in high boots, thick jacket, pants over thermal underwear. His eyes were watery, nose red, boots crusted with snow. He pulled off his gloves, flexed his fingers then cupped them around a cup of coffee I handed him.
“I have to leave for work in a minute, I just wanted to see what fell last night; mostly softwoods. We may have to cut an oak for next winter if one doesn’t come down over the next few months.” 
Next winter, I thought, we’re still in the middle of this one. But then, sometimes winter seems the only season, briefly punctuated by warmth. We prepare for it no matter where we are in the calendar. After a blizzard, Kevin chainsaws downed trees we’ll use for the following winter. Once snow melts in late spring, we pile them onto our wheelbarrow and pull them to an old oak stump where he’ll split each log. Through summer and autumn, Kevin splits wood that we haul and stack in the woodshed. We gather branches and twigs for kindling, buy mulch to cover plants, repair storm windows damaged by rodents or rot, check ice scrapers, snow blowers, heaters. I don’t want to plan for next winter in the midst of this one, but I’m already mulling over next year as though time has fast-forwarded. 
Kevin kisses me good-by, his car vanishing behind snow corridors piled high along the road by the snowplow. I stare out at the sprawling terrain and the house grows cramped. I eat a bowl of oatmeal as I watch birds swoop and dip into the pool of water created by our sump pump, then leave my dish in the sink, pull on mittens, jacket and snowshoes and slide down the slope of snow-curved steps. My face stings. My toes complain. My breath fans out behind me so thickly that I imagine it a contrail too dense to evaporate. I shoe into the woods striped by thin ribbons of light that christen treetops with brightness and offer a broken path of radiance. Everything shimmers, a thousand shafts of sun like a fire in the snow. I pass between trees as if through doorways, slide down small hills, find my way around the vernal pools packed with leaves and lichen-dressed twigs pressed beneath ice like cloudy glass. I kneel to peer in at a complicated sculpture of lacy green lichen, rough brown twigs, curling russet leaves, white birch bark. The sun moves overhead and my shadow is suddenly part of the sculpture, reminding me that in some Inuit dialects, the word for man is interchangeable with the word for shadow.
There is an Inuit word, ablautseneq: corporeal and perceptual transformation. Traditional Inuit believed that a shaman could shape-shift into any animal, described in the poem Magic Words: “Sometimes they were people, and sometimes animal, and there was no difference. They all spoke the same language.” In Western culture, that concept is alien, but here in the woods I want to believe in the possibility; I want to be a fox I once saw flying across the snow. I stand and begin to shoe again. An earlier history has been written beneath my feet on snow parchment; bird, deer, domestic cats, dogs and coyote tracks. My own, created by wide, multi-squared plastic, dissolve any fantasy of ablautseneq; I am only a middle-aged, American white woman.
I have become so immersed in my musings that I paid no attention to last night’s faint snowshoe tracks and find myself lost. I am no more than five or six acres from a house or road in any direction yet feel, for one moment, panic, a vestigial reflex from a time before we’d converted most wilderness into subdivided house plots, before industrialization began to separate us from the natural world, homogenizing everything into a bland comfort, pumping out greenhouse gases that may one day render winter obsolete.  A puff of woodsmoke blows toward me and I move in its direction, sniffing the air like a wild dog, till I’m in my back yard. Later, I share the story with my son Carl who says, “OK, no grandkids wandering in the backyard alone.”

By February, mid-winter, a deep cold sets in. Kevin and I dress in so many layers to go out we feel like mummies. The wind is frequently biting, black ice everywhere, walking treacherous, but we go outside; breathe with the world, center consciousness, sila, as winter wraps that world with its frosty breath of life, and offer thanks, hope for its continuance.   We hear, more frequently now, meteorologists speak about unseasonable cold here, unseasonable heat elsewhere, droughts, monsoons, mudslides. Inuit believe shaman on mystical journeys accept responsibility to atone for tribal transgressions and to restore balance in the everyday world. Outside in the dwindling light, amid skeletons of oak and maple, I mourn for our children and grandchildren, forced to take on that responsibility, atoning to the planet for the ways their forbearers have mistreated it.
By February’s end, I yearn for brightness to lengthen days, become an expanding highway between shortening nights. Each winter, incremental increases of daylight after solstice are so gradual that I don’t experience them, until one morning everything seems to explode into light. I envy the Inuit firmly centered in the cold, mystical qualities of a world with intermittent light. I resolve to work harder, to make these short days more productive, to further appreciate the austere, sculptural beauty of the winter landscape, to fully nourish myself with darkness, to live in the present moment. 
As if to taunt me for my resolve, two days of fifty-five degree weather appear. Ice melts from the roof, a sparkling mini waterfall. Conifers seem to suck up green from the air. Black dots, stark against the hard-packed snow, come to life; snow fleas, also called springtails. These tiny insects, beckoned from their dormancy by the late-April-like weather, frolic wildly echoing my own intoxication with the unnatural warmth despite knowing that this is global climate change puncturing holes in the natural order of things. I reread an Inuit poem: “Oh how entrancing, oh how joyful, I lay me on the ground sobbing.” Over the next few days temperatures dropped to twenty, rose, and fell again.

I drive to Massachusetts to meet Carl and my granddaughters the following week, on a forty-five degree day of bright sunlight. We are spending the afternoon at Parker River Refugee on Plum Island, a natural barrier island of 4,662 acres of dunes, beaches, salt marshes, mini-forests of thickets and shrubs. 
When I arrive at his house the snow is branded, as it is in all cities, with streaky car exhaust, muddy footprints, debris; sun transforming it into speckled cornices of ice. However, on the shady boardwalks winding through the refugee, snow has retained some pristine element. Bright gold slits through the mixed canopy overhead, fires snow like flecks of mica, mantles this natural world with an enticing sheen. My granddaughters want to hold it. They pull off their mittens, cup mounts of snow in their hands, watch it melt, wipe their dripping palms against their jackets, then repeat the process, oblivious to their chilled fingers.  
The boardwalk is surrounded by phragmites, a sixteen-foot grass with feathery, waving tops. Rhizomes, their underground hollow stems, need little to careen across marshes and this invasive species has taken over completely but their thousands of plumes fanning the air is magnificent. We break off a stem for each girl. They march along the boardwalk waving these furry flags which tower over them.    
Later, we walk out to the banks where the Parker River mirrors the fiery globe of the setting sun. Life flourishes here, in the depth of winter. Ducks swim in iridescent groups, webbed feet paddling like battery-powered toys. A northern harrier surveys its territory, a moment later soaring into the air, silhouetted against the sky. I think, for a moment, it’s after a duck, but perhaps discouraged by the density of these quacking water-clowns, it flies in the opposite direction. My granddaughters are charmed by a flock of red-necked grebes, heads bobbing underwater, tails wagging in the air.
Temperatures lower in the shift from afternoon to evening, and scrub oaks shiver in a rising wind. After the unseasonable warmth of the day, the twenty-or-so-degrees is sharply cutting. 
“Cold,” Sadie says. We nod agreement.
“Cold,” Carl repeats. “Time to go home.”
As we turn up the path to our car, Ceiligh points and says, “Look, the moon and the sun at the same time.” 
As we stare, a dense cloud of starlings appears; their dark sheen and white spots paled by the lowering light, their peculiar vocalizations drifting through the air. As if to impress us, they execute the most precise, perfect series of swoops, darts, turns; aerial creatures of such grace that we are mesmerized by their pirouettes against a backdrop of purpling sky.
“Dancing birds,” Sadie says laughing and applauding. 
My granddaughters watch the ballet overhead and then Ceiligh throws her arms open, begins to slowly twirl and a moment later to sing, her small voice blending with the quacks, flapping and overhead cries. Her spontaneous song seems a part of the river, the birds, the trees. She sings out loud her relationship with the earth. The Inuit poet-shaman Orpingalik said, “Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices…. All my being is songs and I sing as I draw breath.” 
A moment later, Sadie emulates her older sister, and begins to sing and spin also; two tiny dervishes, arms stretched wide to welcome the winter night. 
Ceiligh sings, “I love snow. I love the moon.” 
Sadie chimes in with, “Love, snow, moon.” 
Ceilgh’s song is a chant, rhythmic and hypnotic and in the descending darkness, she and Sadie are part of winter’s kaleidoscope. My granddaughters are dreaming, living simple stories of being completely of the world, traveling on their own mystical journey, flowing into the coldness and fading light without fear or reservation. Watching them stirs old memories of once being a child who welcomed each snowfall that draped my Brooklyn Ghetto in mystery. I blew breath again and again to marvel at the white mist, sat on my fire-escape nearly every night, swaddled in layers of clothes and blanket, thrilled by the early darkness that revealed winter constellations swirling overhead.
I recently read a report stating spring now arrives fifteen to twenty-four days earlier, disrupting the patterns of migrant birds, growing plants, insects. I fear it swallowing more and more of the life-sustaining days of winter, of snow melting for the last time, leaving behind a different world: the sharp winter stars of Pegasus soaring over a sorrowful, scorched landscape. It seems to me that what I want is small, yet immense; that generations of children should hear the wind hum through winter trees, should compose songs of snow and moon, should witness the geometric sketching of animal and bird tracks over white frigid fields. 
Just as we reach our car, great flakes of white begin to tumble around us; rain transformed to a state of grace. We pause, four tiny promontories of this vast earth we are joined to. The sun, as it slips into the dark envelope of night, imbues the falling white screen with a final luminous radiance. The whisper of snow takes over the evening. We stand quietly then, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in unison with the earth; sila 

Michelle Cacho-Negrete lives in Wells, Maine. Her essays on the natural world have been widely published, anthologized and honored with awards. She can be reached at
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