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WAKING FROM THE DEAD


Winter died like an old man, palsied limbs struggling to hold a cup of warm milk to his flabby lips. A few gusts of cold wind couldn't dislodge the new leaves of the maples outside, or discourage the birds from gathering straw for nests. This part of the year is always busy with animals doing their housework, getting ready for parenting. The nights were warm for a little, and then turned bright silver with the last vestiges of northern gloom. My neighbors were out in their short-sleeves and summer pants, tending to ragged gardens that had shivered through snow and ice. I knew they were happy to put away the heavy coats and boots in the mudroom, and to observe the wriggles of seedlings eager to be planted outside. Everyone said hello, or waved, or even spoke a few friendly words after being hermits all these past months.

We spent long winter evenings listening to the news as the nation drifted into unknown seas. Dinner was a silent vigil over a slice of ham and some peas, a potato soggy with melted butter. The commentators waited while we chewed and swallowed, and sipped our wine before continuing with the dreary countdown of allegations about the president's attempts to discourage investigations into his Russian connections. TV cameras stared into the bleached light without blinking as we inched ever closer to the unspoken word impeachment. But the word hung in the silence over the heads of the news anchors, and in the disconsolate eyes of the men and women called in to be interviewed.

TV studios have no sense of time or season; they are islands at the edge of the known world, battered by waves of anxiety translated into disturbing bulletins from a horizon of vague war ships and unborn hurricanes. The weather reports mirrored our dread of politics most nights; a sharp-fanged cold snap was tumbling over the roofs of Canada to our little valleys and foothills; winds rushed toward us from the Great Lakes, tearing up the older oaks and elms, ripping wires from the utility poles that wandered through pastures and cornfields. Behind the faces that reported our nightly worries were blank walls or an indistinct set of lines and arrows signifying the mysteries the news was hired to explain. I felt sorry for these young, ordinary people seated at their glass desks, staring at us with contrite faces.

When earth softens from its icy cocoon, nothing is really dead or inert. You feel the will of the mud to awake and stir, to birth something as trivial as a splinter of light wedged in among the particles of rock. Things breathe in and out, and legs appear from invisible sources to scratch open a pathway to moisture. The whole world is given over to miniscule engineers and technicians, creatures with antennas drooping from foreheads, and acrobats balancing on a stem of grass as the breeze lifts them up and down. An earthworm is royalty is these latitudes, moving blindly on the contractions of a glistening body, swallowing the opaque dirt and leaving behind scattered pockets of oxygen glowing like diamonds.

The hunters have gone through the woods with their shot guns bagging their limit of wild turkeys and hauling the brilliant mounds of feathers home on the beds of their pick ups. Each year, our neighbor gives us the legs of one or two of his quarry and we boil them for a few hours, dry them out in the oven and cut the flesh with butter knives. They taste of the woods, a smell of marsh and pine bark, a scent of iron mixed with acorns. You feel the wild spirit as you chew the flesh, and realize how strange these birds are. We call them turkeys from a belief they came from Turkey; the French call them dinde, from a similar conviction they come from India. Truth is, they are the offspring of our native soil, and were familiar fare for the natives of the northeastern pinewoods. They embody something profound and bewildering that ties us to the roots of the nation. They are part of the innocence of our remote past, creatures that long inhabited an American paradise.

But that past has vanished and the hunters are harvesting a vestige of the wilderness from a hunger to touch the America that disappeared. In a way, the news is the voice of our disappointment, confiding in us a grieving vision of how far we have come from when the land abounded with wild apple trees, vast regions without a single road, mountains that belonged to the catamounts and the bears. The news is all about decay, the loss of values, the disappearance of once sturdy institutions that protected our rights of citizenship. When these faces gaze back at us from the hum of their electronic habitat, they are immobile, restricted to their chairs under the blistering radiance of the spotlights. They cannot escape from their captivity in a medium. The inertia of their lives is written in the monotone of their voices, the absence of emotion in their delivery.

Winter dies and leaves behind the rubble of dead summers. This is the fuel of rebirth and everything rejoices in the powers of death to resurrect the new year. I am astonished to witness the vigor of life returning to the landscape after so much icy despair. But when history dies, it has no compost in which to grow new roots. The past lies there in the fading details of an old photograph, where your father holds you up to the camera. He is young and the bones of his youthful face are shapely and acute; his moustache is a smudge of darkness written on his lip to signify his masculinity. He's like a young sapling in his willowy bones, his long trouser legs, his agility and strength. He is still wearing his military uniform and the bridge behind him is the symbol of change that will erase his presence from the world. You can't have him back, no matter how much you wish to possess him. He is gone, without a loam of resurrection to bring him back.

But even without him, you hear the stirrings of the leaves as a squirrel looks for his buried acorns. A bird follows his every movement while she constructs her nest above him. You give up the father that lifted you above his head and brought you down into the crook of his arm. He is sacrificed to the sunlight that falls across your shirt as you enter the field. You know that the voices of the news will talk to you tonight and intone the dirge of our passing moment. Breaking in now and then with shrill music and smiling faces are the advertisers who profess the wonders of a new laxative, a cure for diabetes, some hopeful anodyne to cancer, a fat remedy, or a new reverse mortgage for those running out of money in old age.

Meanwhile, nature rebuilds its castles and washes out the crumbling forest floor with drenching rain. The renovations are thorough and unrelenting; trees that didn't make it through winter begin to sag against sturdier trees until a wind releases their grip and they fall heavily to the ground. The termites are waiting, the ants have already found the sap pockets; a woodpecker surveys the possible uses of a few pulpy limbs that might serve as shelter or a nest. The newness of life is everywhere, a vast display of energy drawn from invisible sources. You breathe deep, you rejoice in spite of everything. You share the boundless optimism of the robins and the low-flying geese, the crows performing in the sky with death-defying arcs and swoops. What joy there is in the chilly spring air, with its carpets of wild flowers and the twinkle of seed husks left behind from some fabulous Mardi Gras parade.

You hear Trump's voice in the background, nasal and rasping, a whiny tone of voice with his hands bracketing the air around some half-stated promise. His face floats on the stagnant waters of the TV in someone's living room, someone who has stayed in on this glorious day to hear the latest. The room keeps lowering down through the weaker realms of light until nothing is left but the corner in which the TV's dying phosphor illuminates a mouth telling us how helpless we are without the next tax cut to liberate us from dependency on a once noble government. Only the startling descent of a redwing blackbird contradicts the mournful liturgy, and before long, nothing matters but the sudden gold showering down out of the sky onto the newly leafed maple trees.

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