As the apocalyptic movie plays out across our screens: plagues, floods, tornados, forest fires, train derailments, so we continue, day by day, keeping on our toes.
The local spring is barricaded with pilons and red tape, the only public spring within a radius of 100 kilometres. This time the municipality has found high levels of lead. They say this now, but how long has this been going on? It’s been ten years since developers built the highway, blasting through the bedrock of the watershed.
People stand there with their mix and match containers, people from near and far. I join them as we watch the water flow from its pipe under red tape. Someone mentions chem trails and we start a conversation about weather balloons pretending to be satelites, fake revolutions in far off countries, rigged elections.
A hare sits on the evening road, still as a statue, its white winter coat mottled with colours of new spring earth. Frozen, still as time. At the last minute, it shakes off its trance, scurries and zigzags back and forth across the road, as if it can’t decide which way to go, then leaps left into the forest where it disappears into thin air.
I light my fire. I shovel snow into a big pot and set it on the stove. The last of my winter wood takes a long time to catch. It sizzles and smoulders, hissing. Then the fire takes off and burns too hot. There’s a crackling in the pipes, a smell of burning plastic, a falling residue, and a thin trail of white smoke crosses my ceiling. I run out to see transluscent waves coming from the chimney flue, a mirage of heat on cold air, and the chimney hat all blackened and peices of char lying on my tin roof. My heart is pounding as I yank out the burning log and coals and throw it all out into the snow. I scrape the embers and ash away and clean my stove box, what I normally do in the warmth of spring. I keep my eye on the flue, waiting to see if I will need to call the firetrucks, and wondering how they would even get in, as the driveway is not plowed. Nothing happens. The chimney cools. The smoke dissipates.
It could be that the pipes are coated with cresote, a hardened black gum that is highly flammable. I’m afraid to light it again. The only chimney sweep for the whole region is away, so I will have to wait.
My routine of setting pots on the wood stove to melt snow, boil tea and warm my dinner all at the same time, is scrapped. Now I rely on my gas stove. I sit near my candles and read, wrap another shawl around me, put my feet on my sheepskin, go to bed early,. I dress in multiple sweaters, tuque, wool socks, and snuggle deep into my military down sleeping bags, under a coyote pelt, sheepskin, down jacket, old mouton fur coat, and sleep warm like a bear in a nest of leaves in a winter cave.
It’s a perfect clear sky to wake up to, but for one long feathery white line, marring the beautiful blue. If you watch through binoculars, you will see how the line spreads its noxious fumes. In half an hour the sky is grey and there is a rainbow-coloured ring around the sun. It seems covered by a milky film. Normally, at this time of year, the sun is hot and bright and the sap is running. But we’ve had snow storms, ice rain, 1 degrees, down to minus 10, minus 17. Water turns to ice and the skies are perpetually grey. The sun rarely shine. I understand now why my father kept a weather log. I open my notebook and write the date and what I’ve seen. I compare this to his notes and to my memories of weather. It’s hard to say what is real anymore.
I feed the birds and the squirrels, get ready for work, peeling off the wool layers for my work clothes, seeing my breath, gritting my teeth. At work, I am overheated, and when I come home again, I open the door to an icebox. The air is warmer outside. I open all the windows, leave the door wide open, light the candles. I put on my layers, warm my lighter in my mouth and light the gas stove. The levers are hard to turn. Water takes longer than normal to boil. I warm my hands in the steam. I can see my breath. My tea cup smokes on the air. The windows are steamed up and I can’t see out.
In two weeks, the cold has seeped into the walls and wood floor of the cabin, into the seams and cracks, clothing, books…The place is empty and cheerless. I sleep in my car. I put my containers of seedlings in the back window. I bring my sleeping bag and pillow, my tea and books, and tilt back the seat. With the soft rumble of the motor and the streams of heat from the vents I feel like I’m on an airplane flying through the forest. I can see the moon in the west through the windshield.
The red tape has blown undone at the local spring. There’s a man filling his containers and I stop my car. He says he saw the graph on the municipal site and the percentage of metals were ridiculously low. He laughs and says he doesn’t believe anything anymore, only the gifts from God. I find courage and get my water jug from the car and put it under the endless streams of pure water.
After my chimney is swept clean, I have the same feeling of grace and humility when I finally light the fire.