I remember well a conversation some years ago. A winter afternoon, snow so white it near glistened; cold outside, just above zero; sunny and bright. I stood inside next to a window and could feel the warmth of the sun. I had skied a few hours in the cold and I was chilled; the warmth felt good. I was visiting with an old friend, and he looked out at the hard winter day, then turned, said, “We’re over the hump.”
And when I asked him what he meant, he explained that the season had turned; winter was on the wane. The sun was higher now, the days longer, the bite of winter not as sharp. We were over the hump; spring was on the way.
All this on an afternoon when the outside air was thin and chill and the snow lay deep and drifted. Over the hump.
I thought of that this week, Tuesday morning, the last day of January. I left home in the shadow of pre-sunrise to ski for an hour before work. It was a mild morning; there have been a lot of mild mornings this winter. The forecast was for near 40 by afternoon, but the snow was firm on this morning. At 40 it would be wetter and begin to soften. Not now, not at 7:15. Now it was dry and cold.
I clipped into the bindings and began to ski, chilled as I usually am at the start, muscles tight and back achy. I skied slow and easy and after a while warmed with the effort. Five minutes into it I was fine and relaxed and fell into the easy kick-and-glide of cross country skiing, the metronomic rhythm that is soothing and familiar both. That rhythm connects a number of sports, from fly fishing to cycling to skiing, all bound by easy movement repeated over time that becomes meditative.
I thought of the day at hand, January’s last gasp, thought ahead to February, now so near. We’ll get cold weather in February, and snow. We’ve not seen the last of winter. But from some dusty corner of the attic of my memory came that old comment: We’re over the hump.
I skied up and over a few small hills, birch and popple trees alongside the trail, rounded a corner and climbed again, an easy uphill, then turned a sweeping curve to the right and let the skis run. The air was fresh and full, and I breathed deep, in part from the effort, in part just take in the clear air. There is something invigorating about fresh air; if you live up here you know that and it is, in part at least, why you live here.
But on this morning, something different. On this morning it was not just the fresh air that connected. On this morning there was the scent of spring. It was very faint, hardly perceptible, but unmistakable: spring, however far away, was on the way. You could smell it in the air of late January.
Have you ever noticed that winter has no scent? Or, at least, none that is natural. You may point to woodsmoke, sweet and pungent, as a winter scent but, manmade in its source. Pine can give soft, unmistakable fragrence, that is true, but only if broken at the stem or the trunk. Winter is without a distinguishing scent. The clear, cold air pure and bracing, but not for what it brings to the nose. Winter air holds no odor; there is nothing there in the cold months.
In winter, your eyes are wide to the beauty of the season; your ears strain for call of raven, ratta-tat-tat of woodpecker, trill of chickadee; your face tingles with cold. But your nose takes time off; it’s just along for the ride. Winter air is devoid of scent.
It is with the coming of spring that we pick up scent again. There is, in the very early days of spring, at the time when snow still covers the land, the first hint of a freshening smell, a delicate blend that seems to know no particular source. But it is there, a distinctive fragrance, faint as if perfume done with a light touch.
That aroma seems a blend of tree trunk and wetted bark, of lowland areas that hold humidity and give off a gentle musty odor of dirt. The scent is an earthy blend infused with dampness. It is, as with all perfumes, impossible to fully give word to; as with all scent words come up short. But it is there and it is real and it, on the last morning of the first month, it was in the air.
I caught a fleeting whiff of it as I skied and it brought me up short. I let the skis run out and stood still. The sky was light to the east, thin clouds held back the full sun. The tall bare branches of birch and oak were as if etched against the backdrop of morning sky. I stood still and breathed deep and, again, caught the sweet touch of spring in the air. Then it was gone.
I did not move. I stood on the skis in the soft morning light and thought of it all. I know that late January is hardly the end of winter. I knew that in two days time the mythical groundhog would emerge and with sleep-heavy eyes assess the situation and wise men would nod their heads and pronounce the span of true winter that remains. I knew as surely as I stood there that we have not seen the last of the hard cold nights and I knew that we have not seen the last of the snow. Not, in both cases, by a long shot.
I knew also that on this morning in the middle of winter there was the slightest, the faintest, the most fleeting scent of spring in the air. There, for just a moment, then gone. Weightless as a shadow but as real.
I started to ski again and the fluid motion of skiing took me up and I skied easy on the dry snow on the trail that wound its way through the woods as if a stream running full in spring. I was warm and comfortable and I knew that I always felt better for skiing in the morning, first thing, that the day went better for it. I knew that in a few days my dogs would stand in the yard in the morning and I would check for shadows as no groundhogs were likely to be available and even if one did happen along the dogs would have it. I knew that shadow or not there was plenty of winter to come.
Most of all, I knew that for all that we were over the hump. I’d smelled spring on the January air, and that told me all I need to know.
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