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Proper Punctuation in Winter

Angie the History Dog is driving me nuts in mid-winter. Out for a hike or a snowshoe, we cut a deer track, and she thrusts her chubby nose deep into a hoofprint, ruminating indefinitely until spoken to harshly—upon which she proceeds eighteen inches ahead and repeats the same ritual with the next print. In a frozen landscape, she is struggling for olfactory stimulation.

One day I will bring in an essay on the sensuality of Labrador retrievers, but not today. I write today from the standpoint of mid-winter and with the awareness of age, approaching that biblical milestone of three-score and ten. Also from the perspective of a scholar whose reading and research confirm the importance of physical and intellectual stimuli to the formation of a sense of place. To submit to sensory deprivation is to invite mental deterioration, cognitive disorientation, and what past generations on the prairies referred to as melancholia. It is all too easy to get owly in winter.

Perhaps I spend too much time contemplating how to live well on the plains, but by virtue of longevity and attention span, I am getting to be an authority on the subject.

The first and obvious key to winter here is not to be imprisoned by it. I offer devotional thanks every day for the rigors of nature—not just the beautiful days but also the stern ones. In a year like this, snowshoes not only make it possible to navigate the shelterbelts and sloughs but also are sensory appendages by which to feel the qualities of the pack underfoot.

Second, in your own confines, there have to be spaces with textures to which you can respond variously--some that link to the outdoors, others that are strongholds to which you can retreat. Light, fire, surfaces, and ornaments are effective elements.

Third--and my main thought of the day—you need things that reproduce and recall the sensory riches of more salubrious times of year. At our house, food elements are such sensory triggers. I have a fascination with ones that stretch the garden season into winter.

My current culinary hero is Hubbard squash. Hubbard is not the most delicious winter squash—that would be Buttercup—but it is a helluva keeper. Last year we cut Hubbards from the previous year’s garden right through to the 4th of July.

I say “cut” because that is one of the sensory rigors of the Hubbard. You develop your own techniques for breaking it down. Every Hubbard is a challenge and a joy, offering textures and tastes that stimulate.

Asian radishes, especially the watermelon types, those are great, too. We are experimenting with them this year, conserving them and metering them out, to see how long they will hold. They are just as crunchy, peppery, and iridescent in February as when we lifted them.

The use of canned and frozen produce recalls not only the growing of it but also its ritual of preservation. Our chile verde is like the old saying about cutting your own firewood—it warms us in more than one way.

What prompts all these thoughts just now? I’ll tell you, it was the work of our master baker, Dr. K. Into one of her typically magnificent pies she introduced a new sensory stimulus. A rhubarb custard pie is a rich metaphor in any case, but into the mix she cast just the right number of frozen juneberries not to alter the nature of the thing but rather to interject little tongue-bombs of purple vanilla punctuation.

The pie is mostly gone now, and winter remains, but our stash of juneberries is deep, deep.

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