â€śWhen we reach Washingtonâ€™s Birthday the back of winter is brokenâ€ť was one of the many adages I learned from the late Capt. Lewis when we would meet walking the low tide beach on a winter day.
My dad, of the same generation, would talk of the true date of the birth of our first President at the dining room table. He seemed intent upon impressing upon us such bits of trivia before it was popular to do so.
That was before the confusion of Presidentsâ€™ Day, which seemed, at the time, an effort to meld the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but for reasons that seem to change with the source, was never legally renamed; the federal holiday remains Washingtonâ€™s Birthday.
The Uniform Holiday Act moved it to a Monday, this year February 18, a week later than the day the good general was born. His birth date is listed as February 22 in most books, because, for all who have missed this bit of arcane information, the British Commonwealth â€“ and her colonies â€“ skipped time moving to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, a bit after Pope Gregory introduced it. . . in 1582.
Given the legislative â€” and mercantile â€” machinations around this holiday it may be appropriate that it still be roaming around February, however vague it has turned, this demarcation of winterâ€™s weakening grip.
It is now the time to go into the litany of all the cruel possibilities, remembrances of Marches terrible beyond the usual dreariness of the month, and of April blizzards. It seems to matter not our individual heritage, if our ancestors came to this land a generation or twelve ago, even if we can trace some gossamer line back to the first European settlers of Block Island who did their best to shake the Puritans of the Bay Colony, we New Englanders have a perverse attachment to the dark side, in February to the worst of winter still ahead.
It can still snow, there is frozen ground that can still turn to a mire of mud we hear â€” never mind we have not had deep enough cold for a thaw to give us those brutal rivers of mud of memory. There is a storm in the middle of the country, waiting to descend upon us, there is cold the Arctic is holding back until we have fooled ourselves into believing it is spring, whatever dour possibility might exist we will cling to it, until the shad has bloomed, or until July Fourth when we declare winter for all intents and purposes, over.
We are determined to find darkness.
We have our own schedules here on our insular island, many, like the calendar created by Pope Gregory, imposed by humankind, the boat schedule the ultimate arbitrator of the seasons. Then there is the deer hunt ending, Bulletin Board announced this morning, on Friday.
The deer, contrary to reports, are not all that clever, or havenâ€™t much of an attention span. They seem to have read only â€śthe last day of huntingâ€ť and not gotten to â€śFridayâ€ť because they are out in droves, a whole gang of them crossing two of the lots mowed around my house over the past year, the two where the horses do not go unless being ridden, excepting the morning of their Great Escape back in the fall.
The deer, all eight of them, meandered over the pond lot out back, then followed what may be a genetically imprinted path, bounding over a pile of brush. One, wiser than the rest, split off, leaving theÂ seven who came the old way, a bit up the lane, over a low wall and under the clothesline to the front field, where the eighth was smugly already in place, having taken the newer, easier route created within the year, a back route for the horses and riders.
They, all eight of them, had the effrontery to frolic â€” frolic! â€” on the rolling, open land east of the house, the low hill where they long have been able this time of year to disappear into the scrub, their color blending into it on a drab day such as this one. A year ago they ran across the newly cleared north pasture and stood at the spot where their cover had grown a day or two earlier, baffled.
This morning they got as far as the south wall and stopped, conferring, and I tired of watching.
It is the first I have seen this many in perhaps a whole year. I hope they are the same that populate Mitchell Farm, in plain view, not another, separate herd. That meadow is a mile from here by the road but not so distant following the back ways traveled by wild animals, especially now with so many houses sitting quietly vacant.
Or perhaps they were merely confused by the moon, the great moon of winter that woke me around 4 a.m. the other morning, its descent in the west casting a light that filtered through the branches of the tree by my window so brightly I awoke wondering whatever the neighbor â€” or more likely his son â€” was doing. It happened once before, years ago; that time with a beam so bright it cast shadows on my wall, just one of several fishing boats offshore, swinging around on the black ocean.
The next night, last night, apparently the moon rose magnificently from the ocean. I was in a meeting and did not get out until after the sun had set, until the moon had slipped up behind the clouds. It was squarely ahead of me when I turned down Mansion Road, but not the red borne of the sea nor the glimmering white that woke me.
Instead, shuttered with faint lines of color, as though its light was so bright it refracted the cover and created something akin to a sun dog, a daytime joy in a February night sky.