By Jim McGuire
I’ve recently come to a rather startling self-admission…I need January!
While I’ve always been a fan of this first month of full winter, I’d never truly realized my perspective was based on a personal requirement. Not just by choice, or some acquired quirky affection, but a deep-seated essential of my psychological, spiritual, and probably physical make-up.
For me January is as necessary as June.
Time slows in January. Suddenly there’s no need to head for the malls and big-box retailers. No reason to spend half the day fighting traffic, jockeying for parking spaces, pushing your way through crowds. No requirement to attend another party or social event. There’s space for relaxation, room to breathe.
January is a white serenity following the multicolored blaze of lighted Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve fireworks. As if nature has peeled the old year off with its passing and placed an uncluttered new canvas on the easel.
The landscape is cloaked in a vast and solemn peace — a quiet treasure where blue jays and cardinals become sapphires and rubies, and a single brooding hemlock can seem a vision in green.
January is for sitting by the fireside, cozying up with a good book, listening to a CD — preferably something dark and complex, so the music can blend with the tympanic rattle of sleet on the windowpanes and the soft, haunting moan of wind around the eaves.
Winter may have officially arrived in December, but January is when we come face-to-face with its heart and soul. Sometimes the bottom seems to drop out of the thermometer. Temperatures slide from below freezing to below zero.
You can hear the difference this deep cold makes in the sound of snow underfoot — waxy, high-pitched squeak which becomes louder and brighter the colder it gets.
Ponds which sported only a rim of fragile skim ice now freeze over, their sheath inches thick and solid as concrete. When you chisel a hole to fish for bluegill, the spud blade produces muffled thumps which ring like a bell.
Should the deep cold linger, certain shallow streams will turn uncharacteristically silent, locked temporarily in January’s grip. Lifeless, though not without life.
For in spite of what may appear as a hopeless finality, below the binding ice the spark of life persists. In the recesses of flooded undercuts, jampiles, and rocky ledges, at the bottom of the pool near a gravely seep, buried deep under the soft ooze of primordial mud. Fish, frogs, mayflies, minnows, caddis flies, turtles, crayfish—plus a hundred other creature big and small, vertebrate and invertebrate, warm-blooded or cold, larva, egg, scaled, furred, including the muskrats and beavers in their connecting bank holes — all await, abiding time and season … persisting, surviving.
Some evenings, long after the time when I should have banked the woodstove’s fire and retreated to bed, I instead step outside, where the nearby river murmurs along on its relentless seaward journey. Stream ice groans and mutters. If it’s cold enough, I might hear a tree pop, cracking like a gunshot. And sometimes, the winter wind keens through the ranks of pale sycamores which lean like thoughtful druids along the banks.
January’s nights are special, lit by a spangle of stars which seem bigger, brighter, closer—stars strung in patterns of ancient familiarity, spinning in slow waltz through an ebony cosmos. You can almost hear their heavenly music as you gaze upwards, shivering, feeling the awesome weight of incalculable vastness stretching forever before your eyes.
January is both eternal and eternity, endless and forever — its reign supersedes the millenniums. I need that truth reiterated from time to time.
I need January.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org