Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas white, winter cold and the spirit of place

I’ve been re-reading two books by Rick Bass as Christmastide settles in --- “Winter,” published in 1991, and the slightly more recent “Book of Yaak,” published in 1996. Both include meditations on this season of lengthening days and deepening cold as well as passionate pleas for conservation of the land and its resources, necessary according to Bass (and to me) to nourish the spirit of a place, or genius loci.

For Bass, the setting is his home, Montana’s Yaak Valley, located in the far northwest corner of that state adjoining Idaho on the west and Canada to the north --- a place of rare natural survivals and increasing manmade threats (notably clearcutting of timber in unprotected wilderness) but few of the man-made amenities most of us are accustomed to (electricity and telephones among them).

“Winter” settles my mind when I am tempted to complain about mornings like yesterday’s, when the sun rose pale yellow and cold from the southeast over a landscape covered in snow and ice and the temperature at dawn was zero. Or this morning, when light snow was falling again.

Spirit of place was a recurring theme as I moved from place to place and among various groups of people in the opening days of a Christmas season rich in nature’s challenges but overflowing with good will and good company.

So this is less about the former, “Winter” and “Book of Yaak” (everyone should read both, seriously), and more about the latter, although they are interconnected.


Christmas Eve dawned here wet as the first major storm of winter closed in (the blizzard of 2009, memorable a couple of weeks ago, actually occurred in late fall). It was clear that the ice and snow would come --- creeping toward us from the west; the question was, when?

On that question hinged many Christmas travel plans as well as the future of evening services at many churches, including my own.

We had something moderately grand in mind at St. Andrew’s, since Christmas Eve is one of few occasions when Episcopalians are generally comfortable with dusting off the word “Mass,” polishing up the censer and finding the incense, planning a processional --- going the whole liturgical nine yards.

But after a morning of e-mail and telephone exchanges, it became evident this would not happen. The vicar, who lives in Albia and who had surgery a couple of weeks ago, wisely decided it was not a good idea to venture out as late afternoon turned to night with no assurance that slush-covered highways would not abruptly turn to solid ice. Beyond that, our members are scattered geographically from Russell to Lucas and down to Corydon and faced similar travel dilemmas.

Finally, the three of us who live closest to the church decided to proceed --- even if we were the only ones able to make it.

As it turned out, that was the best possible decision. The cold held off and as 5 p.m. approached more and more people appeared --- our scattered parishioners, others who appear infrequently but always at Christmas and a good number of welcome visitors. Denominationally, we ranged from Roman Catholic to Unitarian Universalist.

The service was simple, candles and carols, a blend of two liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer into something that actually seemed as if we’d planned to do it that way in the first place, and after coffee and some good food we all made it home safely, feeling as if Christmas had begun as it should.


By Christmas morning, the cold had arrived, snow was falling and roads had developed an impenetrable coat of ice. Not an ideal situation for those who had planned to travel elsewhere for Christmas dinner.

I had been invited to tag along with friends to dinner at the home of Martha, an indefatigable 80-something-year-old, who with her own family absent had decided to create one. She also had been our organist at St. Andrew’s Thursday evening, leaving after our service to attend her own, at First Lutheran.

The short trip to Martha’s involved creeping along the squirrel road’s ice-covered pavement, then navigating the left turn onto Martha’s long and icy lane to arrive finally at her rambling old farm house at the edge of the woods.

As the morning had progressed, what Martha had planned as dinner for six expanded to include a dozen as friends’ travel plans were canceled. I believe she said she had reset the dining room table three times, adding a leaf to the table each time someone else called. Like the loaves and fishes, however, the food supply expanded and we all were wonderfully well fed.

My friend Mary Ellen and I sometimes have conversations based on the premise that Iowa is not only the land between two rivers but also in effect a relatively small village between two rivers --- that it is remarkably easy still for us to connect with one another.

When Paula, the Lutheran pastor’s wife --- headed for a southern Illinois Christmas that morning but dissuaded a few miles east of town on ice --- walked through Martha’s kitchen door with her husband and a plate of krumkakke, the connection was made.

I am in part Norwegian, not by blood but by osmosis, something that happens when you live for many years among Norwegians-by-descent in small towns centered on Lutheran churches and where the alternative to cussing up and down Main Street is liberal use of “Uff da!”

So I am mildly homesick at times for the spirit of place that a tightly gathered Norwegian community fosters at Christmas and mildly distressed that after one passes the midpoint of Iowa headed south on Interstate 35 it is no longer possible to purchase homemade lefse and commercially-produced kringla in most grocery stores as the holidays approach.

Of course, as someone pointed out, neither are Dutch letters quite so readily available north of that point, diminishing in frequency as distance from Pella increases. So the south has its culinary advantages, too.

Paula, of German descent, also is part Norwegian by osmosis --- a graduate of Luther College. And while studying at Decorah she had learned among other things the fine arts of krumkakke, lefse and rosettes.

The connections multiplied a few minutes later when other potential Christmas travelers frustrated by ice appeared to gather around Martha’s table. This couple was native to Manly, just up the pike in Worth County from Mason City, and more than familiar with Grace Lutheran in Hanlontown, where some of my favorite holiday bazaar food memories are based.

Going on 20 years ago, after a son had accepted a job at the Corydon hospital, they had come south to visit and came to feel increasingly at home in these southern hills. Eventually, they moved to Chariton, leaving north Iowa behind, even though their son no longer lived in the area. That is genius loci at work, a place snaring people simply because it feels and looks like home.

As we ate, then retired to the living room to sit and talk, the snow continued, the cold deepened and the wind rose until finally it was time to go home laden as usually happens on occasions like this with more food than we’d arrived with. Had I slid through the curve and landed in Calvary Cemetery rather than negotiating the turn to creep along its north boundary, I’d have had a big box of fudge to sustain me.


Saturday was a good day to stay at home and so I mostly did, but set out after church on Sunday morning for Mary Ellen’s Christmas gathering over the river and through the woods perhaps 45 minutes southwest of here.

A few miles south into Wayne County on slush-covered Highway 14, a few white-knuckle miles west on the ice-covered Cambria blacktop and then, having slowed gradually to a complete stop in order to negotiate the turn, onto the security of gravel at the Cambria Cemetery. This narrow road takes you up hill and down, then having crested the far side of the South Chariton valley snakes south along the ridge. Finally, a right turn, a sudden plunge into the woods and back into the South Chariton valley, then up and out and around a curve and there you are.

It’s a lovely place, but if I lived there I’d probably get nothing done in winter other than sit in front of the bank of windows on the south wall of the living room watching the multitude of birds that utilize a half dozen or more feeders in the small trees and shrubs just outside.

As I’ve probably written before, Mary Ellen arrived here to live full-time serendipitously from Mason City at about the time I finished my move to Chariton. Her late brother bought the place as his idea retirement home --- privacy, lots of trees and wildlife, hills, a pond --- and then became critically ill. Mary Ellen became his caretaker, moving him at last to Mason City to die. Inheriting the acreage, she came south to prepare it for sale, fell in love with it, put her big house in Mason City on the market instead and moved. Genius loci again.

And more of that was at work around Mary Ellen’s table Sunday. One guest was descended from the first pioneers to settle permanently here in the 1850s and still lived across and down the road; another had grown up in the old farmhouse just across the drive now used for storage, had moved away, then returned to live a couple of miles northwest.

Another at the table was by her own account a newcomer, drawn to Wayne County by friends, circumstance and the fact it had seemed like home from the start. As the story was told, the woman’s closest friends operated a family farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia --- a beautiful area endangered by its desirability. She, divorced with two adult children, lived on a smaller farm nearby and had always handled the accounting end of her friends’ farming operation.

The time came when one of the other owners of her friends’ farm wanted cash for her share and the only option was to sell the entire operation, easy to do as developers always were more than willing to pay premium prices for farmland that could be subdivided and sold in small tracts to the affluent.

But her friends had no interest in any way of life other than farming and sale of the land in Chester County, where a per-acre price of $35,000 is not unusual, meant that they had no future there --- they could not afford to buy land. As a result, they decided to move west and settled on an area near Allerton --- land was affordable, the surroundings were beautiful and it felt like home. Their friend, our dinner companion, with little to hold her in Pennsylvania, sold her own small farm, bought a small farm in Wayne County and came along.

It was a fascinating group around that dining room table Sunday, Wayne Countyans old, new and honorary, all of whom could have been elsewhere had they chosen differently, but drawn together and held by the spirit of a place.

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