A Chautauqua World in Winter

Mute swans in winter on the Allegheny. Photo by Jude Dippold

And so we all awoke on Christmas Day to this great icy silence, the frozen lake, the long white landscape of our county poised in a lake effect storm. We looked out to a world quieted by snow, hushed to all outside but the wind and creaking branches. For hours the storm raged, particularly in northernmost parts of the county.

My friend Jude Dippold, now living in Washington State, sent a Christmas card made from his own photo of two mute swans on the Allegheny south of Warren, drifting in the unfrozen winter river, cool and lovely, extraordinary against the snow-dappled world.

The swans took me back to my own experience, living in Germany in the early 1980s, thirty miles north of the Mosel River in a little village called Herfost. But for the modern cars, Herforst looked much as it had for centuries–winding cobblestone streets so narrow one had to pause at curves to look ahead for traffic, stone and block buildings that looked like they could last centuries, barns attached to houses, cows and livestock in front yards, grazing. My landlords the Steffens were 12 and 14 when the American Army stormed through at war’s end in 1945, and soldiers tossed them candy bars and oranges from Jeeps and trucks. The war and its causes had been washed out of memory by most by then. No one talked of it. If they did, they murmured: Wir wussten nicht, leider, wir wussten es nicht. We did not know, alas, we did not know.

Sometimes we would drive down to ancient Trier or to medieval Cochem, towns on Mosel River just south of our village. Near the river, the land sloped steeply down into a valley cut a swath through the countryside. In the summer, vineyards dotted with grape pickers lined the river. But in the winter, the Mosel flowed icy cold but not frozen, a deep forest green, flowing strongly towards its meeting with the Rhine at Koblenz. There beneath the ornate bridges, centuries old, swam the most beautiful swans, in unison it seemed, turning and swaying like a host of ballet dancers, paddling effortlessly in the cold water. Their elegant heads high, they swam past all of us humans as if we were not there at all. They paid us absolutely no attention. It made me think they were timeless, ageless, somehow beyond all human life.

And so my friend’s photograph of the swans in winter takes me back to Germany and how it felt to stand there amidst cities hundreds of years old, that had withstood time and human events, war and the change of nations as part of this Rhineland territory has belonged to France and to Germany both, or maybe to neither. Maybe land does not belong to us at all. It goes on after us. It sustains our wounds. Richard Wilbur writes in “First Snow in Alsace” about the snow covering the dead after a terrible battle not far from where we lived in Germany. Snow covers all our ills and sorrows, our sins and losses. He writes,

Chautauqua Lake expanse, dead of winter. Photo by Sandy Robison

At children’s windows, heaped, benign,

As always, winter shines the most,

And frost makes marvelous designs.

As such, nature is greater than we are, we people. The swans glide on. The river glides on.

The swans gliding on the Mosel in the frigid winter cold and fathomless dark water, amidst their fantastical world of castles rising on steep hillsides, two-thousand-year-old blackened walls and battlements built by Romans in Trier, curving cobblestone streets, milling people, reminding us that time is greater than we are. They remind us that like swans we can drift on past loss and grief, beyond years and change, effortlessly it seems above waterline but kicking hard under water, past and long past, past.

So our lake here in a corner of western New York state covers itself in glass awhile, and the green of grass and leaves and forests absents itself, and the great sheet of white stretches far across and on across the Ellery hills. It’s winter. The new year arrives. We will rest and renew. We will remember winter is a time of silence and healing. We will be swans, imperious and beautiful, impervious to cold, swimming against all weathers, white with hope.