Tuesday, November 23, 2010

`So Silent and Sudden a Change'

In front of the school, three crows defied steel and ice to pick at something dead in the road – a cat, I saw, as I slowed to stare like any rubber-necker. One bird gave a final tug on a string protruding from the abdomen and flew off complaining when I was almost on him. What would remain of the cat by the time kids started arriving at school?

Drivers, children and school administrators grew frenzied with the season’s first snow. To and from school I witnessed an over-the-curb spinout and the aftermath of three two-car wrecks. By evening less than four inches of snow had fallen – hardly a flurry in Cleveland and upstate New York, home of stout-hearted men. On the playground I stopped a fourth-grader from eating snow she had scraped off the rim of a trash barrel. Boys rolled one-third of a snowman across the soccer field. It measured a meter in diameter and by the time it reached the playground was the color of cigarette ash. Others heaved sand-and-snowballs at close range. We had no nurse in the building.

In his journal entry for Nov. 28, 1858, Thoreau composed one of my favorite accounts of early winter:

“A gray, overcast, still day, and more small birds—tree sparrows and chickadees—than usual about the house. There have been a very few fine snowflakes falling for many hours, and now by 2 P. M., a regular snow-storm has commenced, fine flakes falling steadily, and rapidly whitening all the landscape. In half an hour the russet earth is painted white even to the horizon. Do we know of any other so silent and sudden a change?”

I’ve known winter days like that but Monday wasn’t among them. No silence and too much anxiety and agitation, like those crows tearing at the dead cat. No, the day felt more like the one Anthony Hecht describes, with a Gothic touch, in “Birdwatchers of America” (The Hard Hours, 1967).

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