On a recent morning I picked up the heavier, the more serious of my two axes, strode over to the wood pile and set to work. I had thought I wouldn’t have to do this labor again this season, for winters have been warm in recent years and the pile of fuel I had cut last summer had stretched 3 feet high and a hundred feet long beside the fence, the one that separates me from my neighbor. Divides is a better word, the word that occurs to me every time that, to leave my garage and gain the main road, I have to struggle through the muddy trenches churned up by his truck and trailer fleet.
Mud is the price we pay for spring.
But in the middle of February, little more than halfway through winter?
It has already been mud time here, though by historical standards it shouldn’t be. I remember—do you remember?—when snow lay deep, soft and white at 8,000 feet in the forest until late April or even early May. For months, my wife and I used to put on our skis in our garage and ski straight into the Cibola National Forest.
That was 15 and 20 and 25 years ago. In those days, I once wrote a column about our experiencing a 3-foot snowstorm, only to get a call from Mountainair. “We got 6 feet,” the guy said. When I visited Siberia in the winter of 1994, Russians refused to believe me when I told them it was colder at home than east of the Urals. Read early 20th-century descriptions of Mountainair with snow drifts higher than the roofs of houses. Look up diaries from Coronado’s 16th-century expedition describing how he and his soldiers and his horses and his wagons crossed the Rio Grande on solid ice—in April.
This year’s winter has been the most serious in years. We accumulated a total of 2 feet of snow at our house during a week of storms in early January. Temperatures hovered in the single digits, the snow stayed on the ground and I was able to ski in the forest by my house three times. Then the heavy snow stopped, the weather warmed and the snow melted.
Now, despite sporadic dustings of snow, sometimes a couple of inches here and there, and occasional biting cold, the ground in February was as warm and bare and layered in mud as it used to be in April or May. I used to write, echoing T.S. Elliot, how mud and its misery made April the cruelest month. Now it’s February and March that are cruel.
I’m not the only one in a premature sea of mud. I along with a hundred or so neighbors communicate the oddities and perils and joys of our lives via a neighborhood website that has had a focus on mud of late.
“I think my house is sinking in the mud,” one neighbor wrote. “Not really but seems like the mountain turned soft, lol, going to be a lot of road walkway work this spring and summer.”
A neighbor replied, “The mud is bad in our yard. My car slides all over the place in it. It’s like some mud bog competition.”
A third chimed in, “The mud is absolutely absurd! BUT our wells are happy!!!!!”
And a fourth, “I had to use my Bronco. I really only need it in 4wd to get down my driveway, a 300 ft mud bog.”
Despite all the unseasonable warmth and bareness and muddiness of this and other recent years, we still have some madness among us. It’s not a matter of Democrats versus Republicans or liberals versus conservatives but of sanity versus self-destructive madness.
That madness tells us there is no manmade global warming, that the northern Andes will not lose all their glaciers in 10 years, that the Himalayas are not on the way to losing half their glaciers—glaciers that 2 billion people depend on for water—that Africa’s tallest mountains, Kenya and Kilimanjaro, will still soar white and pristine above the plains that they feed, that Colorado and Glacier National Parks will still have dozens of glaciers in a decade or two, that the Southwest will not become so sere that life here for millions will become inhospitable.
The madness substitutes “climate change” for “global warming,” as if some places were actually getting colder, as if glaciers were expanding and sea levels dropping.
The snow geese and cranes in New Mexico know all about global warming. By the second week of February the 100,000 birds and waterfowl I had frequently observed and written about at that time of year had almost disappeared from Bosque del Apache. Once upon a time, it had been too cold for them to begin the annual migration north so early.
I dream that winters will return to the Manzanitas. That for months I will once again be able to ski from my garage into the forest and wander for miles in the snowy silence. That wildfires fed by arid, diseased forests will not haunt my neighbors’ and my every waking moment between April and November.
I dream that there will someday be an end to the madness that proclaims every blip and interstice of real winter, every momentary drop in the thermometer, every inch of new snow floating down onto our warm roads and forest paths amid the long hours and endless months of sun and heat to be proof positive that global warming is a figment of the imagination of 98 percent of the world’s scientists.
I wield this hope as heavily as my ax, as heavily as Robert Frost’s in his brilliant poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.
And yet I cannot stop wondering, why am I only chopping wood when there is better work to be done in the world. Again, Frost:
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
As the two tramps of the poem’s title watch Frost working, he judges himself harshly:
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.
In the culmination of this poem, Frost still has an ambition, like this 78-year-old columnist, to use writing for a purpose beyond oneself, beyond mere pride and persistence:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Meanwhile, to keep my home and my soul from freezing, I continue to split wood. And to write columns.