By Norbert Blei
Working in a converted chicken coop north of Ellison Bay, for 40+ years writer Norbert Blei (8/23/1935 – 4/23/2013) chronicled Door County through the lives of its inhabitants. A newly-revised edition of DOOR WAY: The People in the Landscape, the first book in Blei’s “Door Series,” was published August 2010 and is available at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Sister Bay. If you are a first-time visitor and have come to wonder about the true nature of the Door Peninsula, be sure to take a deeper dive into Norbert Blei’s writing. “January Notebook” is an excerpt from a larger writing project, covering each of the 12 calendar months, that Blei developed in the early 2000s.
THE SAMENESS OF THE MONTH AND THE SEASON…bitter cold, ice and the unyielding snow. December, January, February are one. The calendar holds no promise. The days of the month are blank. Nameless, numberless, neither black nor red. White. Only white. Winter has vanquished the fields, the roads, the water, fastened everything in ice. Day, snow: night, snow. day. Time is temperature. Frozen.
THEY ARE SPEARING STURGEON…on Lake Winnebago on Valentine’s Day. In daylight and darkness men lean over large rectangular openings in the ice, green water, murky water, lantern in one hand at night, the pitchfork of Neptune in the other, their eyes trained for the prehistoric shadows gliding deeply between water and ice.
A SHIFTING OF SENSIBILITIES…that time of the year when the earth, still blanketed in cold and snow confronts an alien, warm wind wafting over it from the southwest. And the earth relents momentarily, expires, rises above itself and mingles in a prayerful haze. While over the pearl, violet horizon, the sun struggles to free itself from bed linens of clouds.
BREAKING THE BACK OF WINTER…the feeling that somehow this is evident in mid-February. The numbing temperatures are gone. The mercury rises to the high teens, the twenties, the thirties…. A warm freshness to the air. The spring-like call of the chickadee. The sound of the woodpecker drumming tree trunks in the early morning. The meltdown: roofs, roads, earth has begun. Even the sky opens to welcome the sun.
RAIN…for the first time this year, three-quarters of the way into February. To hear again, for the first time, the sound of rain drops…the window glass of the coop, weeping. The earth coming back to itself.
SUN AGAIN/SNOW AGAIN…the contrariness of February, unsure of itself, especially in its later days, as it quickly fades into March. What shall I be today? Warmth and melting snow? Sun and the temperatures climbing into the 40’s? Rain. Maybe unexpected rain…the slightest hint of spring. Or fog. Fog would be good, rising from the snow fields, drifting across the highways at night stealing the light and motion of automobiles picking away at the moveable wall of white. No. Enough. It is winter yet. A show of strength. A sky wrenching, wind lashing blow of snow from early in the darkness of morning into and all through the day. Snow, snow, snow, snow. Blowing and drifting snow. Snow falling and rising. Squirrels tunneling to their storehouses. Birds fighting the windblast to the feeder once last time. Snow, unending snow. The silence grows deeper and deeper. February will not be forgotten. The sky weeps. The old man sleeps. Even the graveyards disappear. Death has no dominion in the hidden world of white.
THERE ARE SUNDAY MORNINGS IN FEBRUARY COVERED WITH LAYERS OF SNOW…temperature near zero, wind as sharp as broken glass when I back the car down the snow-banked drive, head down the icy roads into the heart of a Sunday winter day so alive and anxious to engage on all the back roads. With any luck, the sky is the color of pewter and a light snow is falling. With even more luck, the sun, the color of a large dollop of lemon has broken through and scattered its blinding brightness across the field and through the naked woods. The quiet, unforgiving wind blows an angular, steady, thin layer of snow across the icy road like a floating stream—armies of buffeted frozen flakes blindly on the run, this way, that way, up the road, down the road, around the road…wherever the wind dictates. I know where I am headed. Which county road, especially, desires my inspection on mornings like these. Restlessness in the midst of deadly silence. WHITE transforming the barnyards, fences, machinery…rounding all the angles. I drive till the road disappears. Till the morning absolves me in all things that are transient, still, white….
I LIKE THE FEBRUARY DAYS THAT START OUT LIKE SPRING…but by afternoon return you to gray wooly skies, biting wind, the confirmation of cold.
I COULD LIVE FOREVER LIKE THIS…driving the rural backroads, that nobody knows, where nobody goes…notebook beside me, ideas brewing like fresh coffee…to savor it all. To be alive, alive in moments when everything is both possible and uncertain. But beautiful. To go on driving through all of this. Drifting above the road. Over the very land itself. Over it all, Chagall-like blue, white. Eternity in the imagination of desire.
GOOD…it is snowing again. Just when the days seem longer, the season so short.