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October 07, 2005

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It's five o'clock in the morning

It’s five o’clock in the morning of the most important day of the year. Upstairs the coffee is perking and already I’ve stepped outside three times – just to bear witness, to feel what is taking place, to be touched in the same way as every other object and organism on this ranch. Last night the temperature slid below the magic bearer of freezing. The first frost. There is no adept metaphor. When I first stepped outside this morning the world was irredeemably different than it was when I went to bed.

We’ve been expecting it, hoping for it, longing for an end to an abnormally hot summer. But for weeks now it just wouldn’t happen, the anticipation for change was dulled, and the malaise of a season-less climate lay over this ranch like a blanket of fur. For a month, our world has been listless and somehow frightening to think that the cottonwood leaves would simply dry out and fall brown this year from drought instead of golden from the frosty tong of winter.

Typing into the Internet late last night I found no encouragement for our hope of frost. Low of forty-three, it said. No relief from the freeze-frame of lingering summer. No chance of moving forward toward a winter of lush, life-giving snow. But what do satellites know of this snaking river bottom in the center of North America? Clear, the weather report said. It always says, clear, because that is our land. But last night the clearness went all the way to distant galaxies and I knew at 4:30 by the rhythm of dog tails coming to wake me just before Steve Inskeep woke me with more trivial news, that something important had happened in the night.

I stepped out onto the deck, under the explosion of stars and leaned with the dogs into the bracing air. I felt what they felt: a new contract with the world. I tried to imagine what those crystalline scents must feel like to them after a summer of dusty muddle. I closed my eyes and strained with them into the born-again olfactory world of the Northern Great Plains. On this unique morning I could smell the wild things: the grouse, rabbits, deer, and coyotes. They were thickening their coats, evolving strategies for the winter that was suddenly insured. For one brief instant the dimension of scent was given to me like a gift from that brittle sky. I looked up to see Orion and knew that, in many ways, what spring is to the rest of the world, this turning point of frost is to us on the Great Plains.


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