Sunday, February 25, 2018

Cozy North

It's been a great winter, snowy and cold like they were in the 1960s, when I walked a mile to school every day through the bitter morning air down the backstreets of the village of Mahtomedi. 

Our snow blower has been on the blink for several years now, and just this morning, as I chucked piles of snow up the bank on either side of the driveway, I stopped often to admire the peaceful atmosphere and the beautiful sunlight suffusing the neighborhood at dawn, the air totally free of the smell of gasoline.

I learned this year, entirely by chance, how nice it can be to have a very light shovel. Hilary's parents gave us theirs when they moved into a senior apartment: a square sheet of corrugated red plastic stapled to a wooden dowel. It  looked like a cheap toy, and we took it merely to get it out of their way. For years I've been using a thick metal plow-like shovel that's great for scraping across the concrete driveway but weighs about twenty pounds. The first time I lifted snow with the new "toy" I was amazed.

Settling myself here in front of the computer, I see my neighbor, Alice, shoveling the heaps left by the snowplow this morning out by the street. I ought to go out and help her, but I've got a crick in my back, and as she says herself, with a bittersweet grin, "I've got two lazy teenage girls sleeping the day away inside."

Brendan, my neighbor across the street, has a snow-blower the size of a Zamboni, and he sometimes helps her out. But now I see his wife, Sara, out on their driveway with a shovel, and I'm reminded that his machine in on the fritz, and he, too, has got a crick in his back.

It's a bright morning, made brighter by the pristine snow. No summer day could rival this luminosity. And to top things off, this perfect light penetrates far deeper into the house than it does in summer when the sun is high.     

I call it February Light—not an imaginative name, I realize, but it's accurate, and naming something reminds you, year after year, that it exists.

* * *

Speaking of naming things, in the run-up to the Superbowl, attempts were made to "rebrand" Minnesota as a wonderland separate from, and presumably more distinctive than, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Midwest at large. The effort was a harmless one, though it harbored commercial overtones that few Minnesotans—modest to a fault—could get excited about. "Bold North," for example, was a complete flop, absurd and self-defeating. After all, the Vikings of yore didn't go around exclaiming, "Watch out; we're BOLD!"  They just appeared unexpectedly, growled unintelligibly, chopped off a few heads, took the monastery jewels, and continued on their way.

In any case, to be useful, a regional moniker ought to refer to a region, rather than a single state. Minnesota finds itself in the pleasant but unusual situation on being of the border of three regions: the Great Plains, the boreal forest (aka the North Woods), and the eastern hardwoods. Its proximity to Lake Superior gives it an added touch of romance, but its only claim to unique northerliness lies in the Northwest Angle, a curious anomaly accessible only from Canada that juts a few miles north of the 49th parallel.

Even this claim has been challenged by Alaskan journalists, who harbor the strange notion that Alaska is part of the United States. I found the column of Craig Medred, "Geographical Thievery," especially nimble and amusing.  He has no way of knowing, I guess, that to most Americans, Alaska is simply Alaska: outsized, empty, cold, wild, wonderful, and (thanks to Sarah Palin and friends) weird. No other state or region can compare or compete with it, and everyone knows that. It isn't in the contest.

Yet we ought to admit that Minnesotans are grasping at straws when they take pride in having the only indigenous wolf packs (in the lower 48) half of all the peat bogs (in the lower 48), the coldest recorded temperatures (in the lower 48), and the most visited wilderness area in the U.S. These features are all found in the largely uninhabited northern tier of the state, and they're basically fortuitous spill-overs from Canada. Inhabitants of Albert Lea and Fergus Falls probably don't much care.

In any case, it seems to me that Bold North has a false ring that makes it even worse than the slogan that emerged from the 1991 World Series: We Like It Here. The latter slogan carried a passive-aggressive undertone, as if to say, "We like it here ... even though it appears that you don't. If so, feel free to leave." But nowadays that stance won't do. The Twin Cities isn't growing as fast as Denver or Seattle, and city fathers are worried.

However, most Minnesotans aren't worried about such things--quite the reverse--and we're slightly embarrassed by all the manufactured hoopla. Therefore, in place of Bold North, let me suggest an alternative: Cozy North—ice dams on the roof, fire in the fireplace, woodpeckers at the suet feeder, pasty in the oven, accordion music on the stereo (well, let's not get carried away!), February light streaming in, book in lap (maybe Will Weaver's The Last Hunter, or Tarjei Vesaas's Norwegian classic, The Birds?).

 Proud North stubs its toe with the Vikings; Cozy North goes all the way in Pyeonchang with the Chisholm Curling Club Team.

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