On the way to Hudson last night for a burger and a beer, we crossed the Big Sioux, where a big herd of deer were standing on the frozen river bed. It was deepening twilight just then, but up against the snow they were unmistakable--it was no vision--just standing there, barely mindful of a Buick that slowed unnaturally as we tried to count them, at least a couple dozen, probably more.
There are more deer in the neighborhood than there were when Siouxland was nothing but an ocean of grass. The prairie is all corn and beans these days, of course, and, for most of any year, food, generally, is no problem. It's not unusual for us spot them were they stood last night, but only occasionally do we see that many. Maybe fifty. Maybe more.
"Where do they sleep?" my wife said, and I couldn't help but wonder myself. The snow this year is remarkable. It's all over, several feet deep on open field and in that strap of woods along the Big Sioux, even over the ice that blankets the river. At the end of our alley, there's a pile that's taller than I am.
A dozen times at least I've walked through woods and tall prairie grass and come on rounded bedding grounds, but I don't know that I could find such things this year, bare spots of ground where they might, for a few hours at least, escape the snow. I didn't have an answer.
And what would they be eating now--saplings, maybe, stripping bark? Maybe that quiet herd on the river were as stupified as they seemed, unsure of how or where they'd spend the night or feed their yearlings. Maybe they herded up because they'd come to realize their only hope for staying warm was being together somewhere, sharing each other's body heat.
I don't repent for braying about the winter of aught-nine, as I have. We've had more snow and cold, without respite, than I can remember; and I've lived here now for more than forty years. I don't even put away the shovels I fight it with anymore. They're stabbed in piles of snow in convenient places for a job that seems and is unending. Just Thursday the temps rose to 26 or so, and I chopped the ice off the front sidewalk for the first time since mid-December, looked back at what I'd done, even took a picture because that patch of dark cement felt like some kind of harbinger of spring. I'm not overstating. It's been a long winter, and next week's forecast promises no particular respite.
But those deer and their sleeping arrangements prompted a verse of scripture to arise in me, part of the legacy of faith, I suppose, something about fox having their holes and homes when the son-of-man has no place to lay his head.
But this winter, I'm not so sure about the critters as Jesus was, over there in warm Palestine. Where do the deer lay their heads, really? How do they endure the cold that seemingly has no end? I'd have liked to slide a microphone up to one of those big bucks along the river and ask him where on earth they found a bed. I wonder. Would he have trembled like an anxious father, his answer a kind of prayer for spring? How are the critters doing this February? I honestly don't know. Are the pheasants finding something, somewhere?
Crows do fine, I guess. I just walked outside to check the sky, and somewhere, maybe a block or two away, their ridiculous cacaphony was already raising a ruckus in the pitch dark of early morning. They come into town and pick a tree together somewhere and swarm. All that noise didn't seem fearful, just loud. I guess they're okay.
It won't be long now, and I'll go back upstairs and crawl back into a bed. Our electric blanket is kicking up a fuss lately, flashing FF, whatever that means, and shutting itself off by early morning, as if it really can't or won't keep up the pace.
No matter. Even without it, we could warm a bed, my wife and I. It's a burden she tells me she must endure--my coming back to bed to wake her. I crawl in beside her to beg the most blessed warmth any one of us can ever share.
All of which reminds me that long ago, when I started this blog, I'd determined to try to bring thanks every morning--for something, anything. We'd all be better off, Garrison Keillor once said, if each of us would take a pledge to be thankful, daily, for something at least.
So this morning it's not that goofy electric blanket for which I'm thankful, it's that warm bed, a place to lay my head and ward off the cold, and the fact that I know my wife will have me.
Last night, for the first time since November, the skies were light enough to see the deer on our way to Hudson. For the first time, we didn't cross the river in darkness.
No matter how high that pile at the end of our alley gets this winter, daylight's lingering now, and it won't be long. It won't be long. It won't be long. Maybe those deer understand that too. I hope they do.
That too is reason for heartfelt thanks. You just know--even though you have to remind yourself--that spring will come. And it won't be long. It won't be long. It won't be long.