Novelist | Singer
The thermometer reads 10 degrees. Ten. There is no denying, it is winter. A nuthatch is clinging to the side of the suet feeder, bashing its thin beak against rock-hard lard. Goldfinches, chickadees and house finches all vie for limited perches on the feeders. When I leave for work, the wooden deck outside creaks and pops its complaints and it occurs to me to complain, but I hold it in.
Winter is simply another snapshot of New England, and certainly the determining dynamic in its unique beauty. A kind of permanent winter (the Ice Age) shaped New England’s topography and rubble-packed character, and also determined why this special place is not now overrun with more people than it can handle.
This here is Gloucester, Home of the Perfect Storm. The most famous little city in Massachusetts. Its name is known far and wide, thanks to the movie, a lot of cool history, and the beautiful scenery that define this place. In the good weather – and we have a lot of it – this place is crawling. People jam themselves in cars for hours and hours, dodging teeming traffic and race to get a spot at the beach. Why not? Gloucester has the most beautiful beaches in the world. Forget White sand and Green water – that permanently sunny location format that you see plastered on travel agency websites. No, no, no! We have cairns of black speckled Rockport granite dripping with sea wrack, maritime forest, dunes with dune grass, and in and among them are the breath-taking beaches that pull so many people north for the temperate season. We curse at out-of-state license plates which always seem to be in front of us because they haven’t learned the Gloucester pull-out and wave-ahead. And it’s temporarily irritating, because we know it’s temporary. One day soon, Labor Day will arrive and we’ll have the town back, at least during the week.
Now, imagine if New England had no winter. Gloucester would have over 100,000 residents – and not just in the summer, but year ‘round. Our roads would be horizontal parking lots. People would leave their cars and simply walk away. Yes, our pavement might be better because we would have no need for salt, but repair would be impossible, except at night. Beaches would never get a break. The artists at the Art Colony would be ecstatic, and then worn thin as people flock year-round to the galleries. Long-time residents would move to Dogtown to escape the throngs. They would run up the line on a daily basis just to free themselves from all the strangers who have decided to live here for life.
Winter, in fact, for most seasonal Gloucester visitors, lasts from Labor Day to Memorial Day. Even better. Labor Day comes, someone up there throws that magic switch and the traffic just turns off. The Gloucester pull-out and wave-ahead is once again in effect and people stop for each other to pass on our slender streets that groaned under the weight of summer traffic. The days tick by and the light wanes, first noticeably and then at small but scary increments, then Daylight Savings gets extinguished and now it’s really dark. And. Winter. Sets. In.
No wonder people above the Arctic Circle own sunlamps. Kids wearing swim goggles and shorts stand together in a circle around a sunlamp nucleus to capture bone-building Vitamin D. It’s not that bad here, but it can make you reach for the Prozac. It’s beneficial at this time to have an obsession with an indoor hobby that demands all of your energy and attention after the sun goes down.
Christmas and New Year’s come at the most opportune time. Just as we are mourning the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year, all of this festive distraction snatches our focus; shopping, cooking, eating, traveling, dealing with family, parties, silver and gold. By the time it’s over, the days are already more than 15 minutes longer. If you keep any kind of schedule at all, you can tell by the second week of January. All you have to do is get through February, the longest month of the year. I don’t care if it’s only 28 days and sometimes 29. It’s the longest month of the year in New England.
Then spring comes, or almost comes, and then goes, and then comes again. It’s wet, miserable, muddy, cold – and the wind! The cursed wind, that relentless, bone-chilling, oh, never mind. It’s not worth the breath, because next on the calendar, we are blessed with the most fabulous reward on the planet. Blooms so vibrant, they melt the snow and ice and push their delicate regalia up to the sunlight, desensitized to the brutal gust of spring. The delicate petals flutter carefree in the frigid wind, unaware that their lives are ephemeral snapshots in the scenery, not to be resurrected for an entire year. Ahhhhh, the vision. Check the date. It’s still winter.
So, until that magical time, keep this is your brain. The harshness of winter saves our beautiful city from a massive influx of Gloucester lovers who would love to live here permanently, but can’t handle the cold or the snow. It’s one of those proverbial blessings in disguise. We’re already halfway through January. Enjoy the brisk air and empty streets. I, for one, will wave you ahead.