Saga of Othala V: The Winter Hustle

Whoever wrote ‘This is the Winter of our Discontent’, must have not have had a woodstove, and access to snowshoes. For this has been a winter of abundant contentment as I pilfer into an idle hour to write another transmission on a subzero nocturnal. The revolving door that lurched us unclimactically into 2021 brought about a need for great mauna, silence, as the year prior carried the din of a loud and amplified history. With two new world viruses to protect ourselves against, giant voices in the media, and even greater trolls imposing their way into inner circles of our homes and social spheres, it seems like the average being has been on the defense against powers akin to Goliath telling them what to do, how to do it, and we are all tired of being should upon.

My plan was to lay in potentia this winter and hibernate some, I planned a more hermetic path after such a hefty filling of lifemaking in India, and the initiation of a new life in my sylvan abode. Of course, the Gods finds amusement in the fickleness of our human plans, and nothing can alter the web of Wyrd but the ladies of spirit strands themselves. Instead my winter hustle in the Appalachian woodlands has taken presidence over leisure, and ushered me into a more feral landscape for the longstanding annual tradition of maple tree tapping. Perhaps it is worth at least a mention since my new engagement entails so much of my waking attention.

From dawn to dusk, I wade through moosebrush saplings and fungal laden birch from one snow footed maple to another, in a field of crystal crusted powder. Power drill in one hand, and aluminum mallet in another. Assessing the health, and state of each tree; rock, red, sugar, gray, mountain, the species I look for bearing old holes from years past of sap providence. I have heard box elder can be tapped, black walnut and birch too, but there are not so much of these former sweetblood trees to speak of, the maples are the objective and the ‘Sine qua non’ of the Canadian winter postcard image. Though we don’t use horsepower anymore, and the procedures vary, the essence and the product remains the same. A few hundred thousand trees and some are tapped here in New Brunswick, each drop funneled through a silicon spout into flexible sky blue tubing on grade, which flow to lateral piping on contour and start their meandering way to the sugar shack. Though these shacks have had quite the renovations in their time. No moss chinked logs and cast iron woodstoves to be found, but lots of stainless steel, reverse osmosis machines, ball tanks, hoses, motors and electric panels. No wooden buckets, staghorn sumac spiles and vintage cooking pots, sigh… The hyper modern element of the job is something I may never ante up to, it just feels so industrial and can easily give the perception of being unsustainable. Maybe there is verity in that, though the high standards of today ensure that most commercial maple operations are fairly bullet proof when it comes to forest stewardship. The outfit I work for is registered bio (organic), which means only two taps are allowed per tree, with smaller girths permitting only one. The native ecology and plantlife must also remain unaltered, save for trail clearing and storm damage. The species that inhabit the crown land are left so the the forest can mimic a natural ecozone (boreal/eastern broadleaf mix) while supporting an operation. Therefore, these are typical of most maple woodlands in lower Canada, with ferns, fiddleheads, ramps, poplars, some conifers, and chaga bearing birches, though with the lowbush flora, they are now under a packed layer of the white stuff.

Seven weeks into it, and I have finally hit my stride. My muscles start to remember the movements, I have gleaned how to coast and climb on snowshoes over the topography of this rolling Appalachia, my eyes seek out the spatial patterns of each bark face as to where the most ideal place to tap a new hole will be, and my motions are smooth, most of the time unless I get caught by some infernal snow snag and faceplant into the cold ground. The varying degrees of temperature have taught me the appropriate clothing apparel to cope with the flux of wild weather, and I have learned some of the Inuit knowledge of the different kinds of snow; soft and powdery, crusted plate, ice glazed, solid and squeeky, wet and compact. I have my favorites, and they can either make or break an eight hour day on snowshoes. My sympathies go out to the narrow hoofed fauna with heavier frames than I, these are good days to be a snowshoe hare or a chipmunk. The exposure is the grace of the toil, with so much time languished in the great outdoors, an affordance of divine encounters (well, maybe not divine) but sublime experiences can lofty the soul out of its couching in the mundane. These injections of the special certainly levy the great slog and monotony that the work can sometimes be. On one occasion I found myself lost in the woods (there is a paradox for you), and followed the tracks of a Moose until reaching an evergreen treeline. Before I knew it, the great beast was afore me and he spooked back up the slope from which he inevitable had come. His tracks left cloven prints in the outlines of my snow shoes, we shared the way, and I drifted through the snow until recognizing a chaga on a broken birch which I used to orient myself in the land and find my south, which was wear I was heading, and was the the coordinates of my lunch, left behind in the skidoo. Another occasion offered a sighting of an ermine in his arctic coloration, which brough back nostalgic memories of my last meeting with this rodent on the banks of the St. Lawrence in Montreal, on a -40 degree day, as I meditated on the rapid pack ice flowing downriver. A weekend walk on the traditional rawhide snow shoes brought a few neighbors and I to a beaver pond and forest bridge, before which I was treated to the sight of newborn rabbits and their kin.

The first day of winter also marked the first day I started to learn the tagelharpa, a new instrument that has made it’s way to my hall of the woods, all the way from Turkey! The Tagelharpa is form of lyre, bowed with a horsehair string, with models found in some Viking farm remains and burial mounds. Mine is a reconstructed version made of rowan and horsehair carved with the ring of the Elder Futhark Runes and a Mjollnir hammer. I fashioned a braided horsehair rope from the extra Mongolian ropes on my yurt, to have it hang across my chest while strumming, and have been sounding the tuning, and finding the drones. Eventually I see this new tool as being an instrument in my Skaldcraft and composing music to tell story in a more fitting manner to old tales and new. It hangs proudly on my bed post, just in case I wake with a dream of tagelharp tune in my head, and need to hear the strings vibrate. A carved axe hangs on the other head post, for other purposes.

The addition of an altar table in my hall has made the space hold a new reverence, adorned with relics from the forest, pictures of my ancestors, books I have written, ivory, horn, antler and bone talismans, a seax knife and salt crystal amongst other precious sentimentals. It also holds my cultural library with books on the Viking migrations, myth, archetypes, stories, and pagan traditions, prose, and my Gild curriculum. I oft speak aloud morning heathen poetry for marking events in my life, ritual actions or ceremonies. In an example from the Sagas, when the God posts sent from a faring ship were tossed overboard, and later found on the coastline, a man would lay claim to this land in the name of his Patron God. From whence he would walk the boundaries of the land with fire brand, a torch that symbolically drew the edges of the gard from where we chose to settle his hof, or heim. This has been a gesture that has always garnered a fascination in my heart, and something I could finally partake in, as one night the mood was perfect, and my kenaz torch was light. As I walked the four corners of the land, from the road, behind the yurt, into the boreal trees, and back north to the ravine, my flame illuminated the tracks of a small mammal, perhaps fox or porcupine, and then was extinguished naturally by a snuffing powder of snow at the end of my walk, as Thor and Frigga were called in for their hospitality, and intervention.

In Knowlesville, we have not bore witness to much sun this past week, and a few of my neighbors older solar systems are suffering, while my own remains a little hesitant to give up its limited bank of power. Some 1W amber led lights in all four of my rooms are a stout back up during gray days when other outputs are too heavy a pull on the inverter and batteries. Besides this we are experience odd January temperatures above the freezing point. The Woolastook river is only frozen over in parts, and the streams of Hamilton Brook behind the land trust are slushy with ice only on its fringes. These freeze thaw cycles before late winter are doing a number on my roof, and tend to bring a few cold drops inside, unsolicited, then pooling on the floor in one of my rooms. My pantry is as full as it has ever been, and I found a source for venison, moose, and raw honey, so my larder has been fairly abundant. The return of potlucking has injected some life back into the small folk gatherings of the village. Thirteen different heartbeats frolicked in the company of this cabin place, with food to fill the belly, instruments with strings being strummed for others to sing, and the free vibrations of living the good life with others you love.

A new tradition of ‘board meetings’ has caught on between myself and someone very dear to me. Each Frigga’s day (Friday), our meal is curated over a board, and eaten with our hands, which each alternating week being focalized by one or the other of us. It began with sushi, then with charcuterie the week later, and nachos the third week, there are swimming ideas of what shall be next fridays supping, and I am the curator of that one. Another night I brought home Indian food from Woodstock from a new place in a large hotel off the trans Canada highway. A young pretty girl named Preet warmly surrended my order of palak paneer, veg briyani, and rotis, some favorite of my Indian foray in the yesteryear. Though she wore her mask, I thought I could see her smile, and felt strongly pulled to stay and talk, share a few stories over the counter, and linger for a moment. To be honest, she was the first east Indian woman I had met in New Brunswick, only having seen even a few men in the co-op. They had some posters of anti-Modi in the restaurant, and intrigued me to get some insight. Pleasant as it was to come across another woman close in age with radical views, and a strong presence. Nevertheless, our meeting was brief and only rubbed the surface of platonic icebreakers.

I’m revisiting a couple old books I wrote in my twenties, one on Norse astronomy, and a script on Scandinavian psychoactive herb lore. I am always impressed with these reflections of a younger self, the sense of accomplishment at an age when most folks my age were getting careers, starting accidental families, and killing their spirit with mind numbing passivity. Writing is always something I have had the knack for, and I think I will always write. One of the initial reasons for the impulse to settle into a more domestic routing for me is the forbearance of leisure time for writing. A personal ‘study’ has not yet been established in the homestead, though a small writing table with my wicker woven habitant chair pulled up to it by the hearthside affords me a great many hours of idle creative drafting, while the victrola stereo sends strains of sound pleasing to the ambience of the hall.

The moon is so intensely bright tonight, she keeps me awake in a lunar bath. Her halo that illumines the spruces carves their boughs into stark staves jutting into the ether of the blue gray gloom. The teins of a deer antler above my bedposts, the rime of icicles tilting off the steel pan roof, and the chiseled silhouettes of birches that seem to scrape the nightsky without their foliage on, form three levels of pointed shadows in a single gaze outwards my windowpanes from beneath the covers. While shuffling along on snowshoes near the Shiktehawk river the other day, a winter hare bumbled out from hiding into a less conspicuous blind, where I could gaze at him in full for several full minutes. Occupy simulatenously an awe of this reslient creatures grace but also of delicious Hasenpfeffer;

‘Saute shallots and garlic in skillet for about 4 minutes, until tender. Stir in wine, 1 cup of water and bouillon. Heat to boiling, then stir in jelly, peppercorns, bay leaf, and rosemary. Return rabbit and bacon to skillet.

The black capped chickadees are making their sonorous spring and summer calls months ahead of nature watch, and temperatures are rarely plummeting below the double negatives, methinks we will experience spring like temperatures in february. Three times now I have found myself stuck the Knowlesville field, and twice in my own driveway, these experiences would be more inconvenient if they were not part of the village initiation. How I already long for two wheeling weather, and sun strewn backroads, my heart pangs a little when I visit my workship for some frozen meat and see the Nighthawk parked beside the ash barrel and the plywood, cold in its pipes and stiff in the bones. Meanwhile the mildness of this winter is perhaps just what is needed for now, as I closely observe the quirks of the cabin for the next fimbul season, this being my first full winter in Canada for eight years.

This transmission closes the draft with an old fashioned pancake breakfast with the Guatemalans I work with, and three women from the village. The ladies danced bechata, and we griddled the pancakes on a hot pan, then broke our fast around the long table with smoky maple syrup, frozen blueberries, and the good life. Luckily one of our posse spoke far more eloquent Spanish than I, she was never my mother tongue alas, and it felt rich to experience the bumble of conversation over the meal.

A stark noreaster now brings Labradorian blizzards to snuff out the snowshoe tracks, and paint the forest white with Hagalian rune crystals. We are on the ebbing side of winter, and my soul feels sated and held aloft by the boughs of good bonds. Projecting forth my thoughts to spring days, I look forward to being shirtless on my roof, laying turf in the open air, and riding the saddle to Newfoundland on a motorcycle foray with a brother in the Old Bastards. At least that is the dream, we are in a new world of men, so I don’t even know where we are going.

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