Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January Thaw

This month we had our annual January thaw, so common in the North that it does not need to be explained to anyone who has lived here for at least a year or two. During the thaw, our temperatures, while not exactly fall-like, are much more temperate. Sometimes even, the snow and ice, as the words "January thaw" imply, melt for an hour or so during midday. Even a string of two or more days, with temperatures only 5 or 10 degrees higher than our usual January fare, is significant cause for celebration. Add some sun, and those of us in the North Country are literally jolly, buoyed by the freedoms that come with the thaw; walking upright instead of bent over in order to watch where we place our feet and protect our face from the blowing snow, driving at the speed limit without worry about an upcoming patch of ice, and moving around the house into areas too cold to visit for more than a minute or two during most of the winter months.

I took a little survey while running errands during this month's thaw. I found no one who could explain to me why the thaw happens, even though we are enveloped in it every January like clockwork. And, there seems to be no guidelines as to how high the temperatures must rise and how long for the January thaw to be official. But frankly, when you're finally walking upright at more than a snail's pace, who cares?

Generally, I learned from those surveyed that a January thaw means temperatures are high enough to create dripping off the roof for at least an hour each day. That the phenomenon lasts at least 3 days but longer is better. And it's a grand year when the thaw is accompanied by the sun. And if we really dare to dream big, the thaw and the sun are best if arrival coordinates with at least one weekend. It does in no way mean we lose all our snow. Some years even, it's agreed, the January thaw is not technically a "thaw" but nearer to high freezing temps.

As I write today, the snow is becoming heavy with moisture, falling off the trees and the banks of the creek, creating new noises for my big black lab to bark and growl at as it splashes into the creek. Lake ice is melting to an inch or two of water on the surface of 12 or more inches of ice. That water will immediately freeze tonight into fine skating-rink quality ice. There's a racket in the woods around my home as those who semi-hibernate come out of holes and burrows and dens and piles of snow to see what's up. I welcome the touch of the thaw for the subtle change in my sights, sounds and smells, for the sun on my face, for one less layer of clothing on our walks, and for the smiles and the change of conversation I get during my travels. I welcome it for the breather it gives me before we enter February and very cold temperatures. And I welcome the thaw for its prediction of the certainty of March. I welcome it for its spirit.

My friend David tells me the English word for spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath." He suggest that during this January thaw, the earth around me is engaging in a spiritual pursuit, breathing in and breathing out, expanding and contracting. And that's the gift, isn't it; to pay attention to just the simple things like the planet breathing.

"Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each." ~Henry David Thoreau.