Hearing No Long Pause: E. B. White and a Lament for Lack of Winter


Trees of Winter

Oh, they are lovely trees that wait

    In the still hall of winter,
    Silent and good where the Good Planter
Fixed the root, wove the branch delicate.

Friendly the birches in the thin light
    By the frost sanctified,
    And here, too, silent by their side
I stand in the woods, listening, upright,

Hearing in the cold of the long pause
    Of the full year
    What trees intend that I should hear:
Interpretations of old laws…

Hearing the faint, the chickadee cry
    Of root that molders,
    Of branch bent, and leaf that withers
And little brown seed that does not die.

                                               ~ by E.B. White

Hearing No Long Pause:

E. B. White and a Lament for Lack of Winter

by Andrew Lazo

Don’t I wish.

I grew up in northern California, where winter meant day upon day of rain. That steady deluge however offered more than just Seattle-like drear. Instead, I found great comfort in falling asleep beneath raindrops on rooftop, sure that its steady song would sing me through my sleep.

I’ve wintered in Chicago, forty-six below, and have had my breath frost over on my face. And I’ve lived in the South, where snow fell gently maybe a dozen days each winter, dusting the ground for a quick while, fading away before the end of the week.

And now I live in Houston, Texas, a tropical zone, with brief aberrations of cool weather. Most of you would call our winter “Spring.” And, with apologies to those of you who have survived Snowpocalypse, reading this from behind the drifts even now pressing up against your doors, I despise the weather here. I envy you.

Here, we take out our sweaters then tuck them away again in less than a week. And pull out shorts. I’ve had my heater and my air-conditioner on the same day—and it was Christmas Day. We shut schools for a snow day when not a flake flies. And the natives, however much I love them, shiver when the mercury falls below seventy, and complain loud and long.

In the meantime I complain, and wish for a good, glorious Autumn, and for Winter. Here I have no need for cocoa or gloves, or sleds, or layers of blankets—all of which offer some comfort and help in that old game of playing hide-and-seek with the freezing air. Coffee, however hot, just doesn’t do so much on a humid mid-January morning. We know nothing here of white Christmases, however much we dream.

And then E. B. White has the audacity to fling in my face phrases such as “the still hall of winter,” “by frost sanctified,” and, worst of all, “in the cold of the long pause.” With no exaggeration I tell you that, here in Houston, our peaceful pause it is by no means frozen, and is interrupted in my neighborhood by the year-round jangle of the ice-cream man. How his tinny tune unnerves me and even sets my teeth a little bit on edge. The closest we get to winter, it seems, is cheap ice cream, delivered to the door.

Even still, I have chosen to live here in the tropics, and many, many blessings accompany the cold cost I pay each year. My complaints about seemingly endless heat and humidity notwithstanding, Houston, seen through the lens of White’s poem, offers me one decided advantage: it teaches me another way to long for something.

I too have stood “silent by the side” of trees silvered by frost. I too know and love the “thin light” and the “branches bent.” I remember, even as the memory chills me cheeringly, “the branch delicate,” and “the lovely trees that wait.” And I trust that the Good Planter has chosen carefully this plot of ground for me in this season of my life.

I long for snow such as Kelly snapped for me this morning, and I know I’ll never taste it here in Houston. But this longing helps me smile in the sunshine when I by all rights should see snow. For longing is a great good for me, as it was for C. S. Lewis.

And much more, this longing proved a great good for Wordsworth, who taught both Lewis and me, and countless others (you too?) to find in Nature “a presence that disturbs me with the Joy of elevated thoughts.” Living so far away from winter makes me glad at least for the sharp pang of missing it. And if Dante’s Hell is cold, then might a corner of Heaven be wintry as well—full of snowball fights with cheering cherubim, perhaps, or snow angels made by seraphs?

If nothing else, my balmy longing for such a winter as White portrays fills me with Wordsworth’s hope:  a hope that I may “become a living soul: / While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.”

Amen. Throw a snowball for me up there in the North, won’t you please? Here down South I’ll eat a snow cone for you. I think I hear the ice-cream man.

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