ESSAY: Northern Folk
Out fly fishing this morning I felt a chill in the air. We’ve had a cool spell, but that’s not it. In mid-August I believe I caught the unmistakable pulse of fall.
I live in the Northland. Summer isn’t over yet but our summers are short. By the end of July the butternut tree and sumac bush have reddened. Before Labor Day the leaves of ash trees and smaller maples are falling. Days shorten and the evenings, spent on the porch with a glass of wine and one you love, acquire a soft violet tinge. It’s still warm in August, blood warm, but the feeling is there, a vibration, unmistakable, pervasive.
Winter is coming.
I married a woman right off the plains of Western Minnesota. She’s Norwegian by heritage and perfectly happy. They are a stoic, placid race. They like to drink coffee, read books, clean floors, wash clothes, hang laundry, clean windows with a garden hose so you are knocked off your chair when the blast hits the window, repair things, tend gardens, and in general work outside, in any weather. The long winters are perfect for them. They are never cold.
Minnesota is filled with these northern folk. They are tall and strong and healthy and hearty and not very good looking. They are too big, too coarse-featured, with wide mouths and big noses, long legs and big backsides. The women are supposed to be blonde but are more often dark, their wavy hair a deep chocolate brown. True blondes when you find them are the darkest kind of blonde, shading off to blonde-black, if there is such a thing. Clothes look good on them, the cable-knit sweaters and Cashmere pull-overs and fringe scarves and expensive sunglasses. Women around here wear lots of clothes, even in summer. They are modest and do not like to be caught in any conspicuous or compromising state. Clothes are protective.
Norwegians frown when they think. Even the children. By twelve a line has formed above their eyes, poor things. The frown does not mean they are unhappy. It just means they are thinking.
When they arrived in Minnesota they saw all that prairie and simply said get out of our way. They had crossed the ocean from mountain-clinging boulder-strewn hardscrabble farms where only the eldest sons inherited land. In Minnesota there is room for everyone.
Weather means nothing to them. Cold? Ten thousand years ago they stepped from receding glaciers wearing bone-hewn sunglasses and embroidered coats fastened with saber tooth buttons. Summer had come to the Northland, that first summer, and when they removed their hoods and shucked their coats they were hairy as oxen. The women included.
I bet the first thing she said was: I’m too hot. This is why these northern folk like Minnesota: Winter is coming. It’s always coming.
(To be fair others like it too. Mexicans love it here. They actually like the weather. When I asked someone about this he answered me this way. “Mexico? You ever tar roads in July?” No, I hadn’t.)
November might be the best month of all but by January it is murderous cold. This is almost the Arctic Circle, or so it seems. At eight a.m. the sun finally limps into the sky, and it’s dark again by four-thirty. Wind whips off the prairie. The outdoor thermometer reads a solid ten degrees below for so long you wonder if it froze. Out on the streets people are glimpsed in snapshots, the steam rising from groups huddled at bus stops, or drivers blowing on their hands as they navigate snow-packed streets.
And the worst part is everyone’s happy. They wouldn’t live anywhere else, they tell you. They laugh and smile and high-five each other and go skiing and sledding and throw snowballs for the dog and haul the kids to parks and build snow forts and plan trips North.
Everyone’s happy. Except me.
I always thought I’d live in a tropical place, I have a tropical personality. I hate cold weather and love hot weather. I don’t like to think or work very much. I have a lazy, wandering, nostalgic view of life. Key West or Montego Bay seemed about right, but my wife convinced me this place is the best place for us. She said I’d get bored with beaches and hammocks and all that island-themed foolishness and maybe she’s right. I live here because this is where she lives, and no other place would be worthwhile without her.
So I stand here fly fishing in August, thinking of winter. And of her. It’s twenty below and she has a cup of coffee and is wrapped in a heavy white robe. There’s nothing to do but spend the day together, inside. Maybe I really do like it here.