“Downstate,” my neighbor and I say, standing in her vestibule. I’ve politely declined her offer to come in and sit, too much to do. I won’t stay, I tell her. So I stand in my ragged jeans and muddy work shoes, she in her bathrobe. It’s close to noon—but she’s in her 80s and lives alone. Why shouldn’t she be in her pajamas? I think if I were her, I likely would be too.
Downstate. We talk about it almost like it’s another country. It feels that way sometimes, once you’re here, for a while, the wind blowing, combing the shore; water and sand and trees surrounding you even along the highway. “More sticks than you can shake a stick at,” I quipped as we made circles around the cottage, picking up all the branches that came down over the winter. I had a big pile beside the path down to the beach, and we still hadn’t gathered them all.
An entire tree had come down, too; it fell along our property line, lying across the stream that runs there now, in spring. My neighbor mentions this first—she’s been looking at it, of course, from her window and as she walks out to her garage. I tell her I saw it, and Sally and I will cut it up. When things dry out, she says. Then we move on to other topics.
The winter was hard she says, because the weather—temperatures up and down, up and down—really got to her. “You’d think a nice warm day would feel good,” she says. But not when you know it’s not time yet, and the cold sets in again. “I think, winter is winter,” she says. I’m reminded that the seasons happen within us as well as without. “Although I did think, I don’t have to shovel.” She laughs wryly. She looks older than last year. Any kind of winter is long, I guess. But especially one that you can’t recognize.
We hug before I go; I tell her we’ll be back soon and get together for a glass of wine or something. She may be downstate, she says, May is busy. Downstate—that funny word again. Ok, I say. We’ll catch up some time.
After lunch Sally and I investigate the tree. I pick my way over to its stump, on a tiny island in the brook. The furrowed bark shows telltale D-shaped holes, and pulls right off to reveal the looping trails of insects underneath. Emerald ash borer. Just what I expected.
Later when a small plane revs overhead—for already the third time or so, this trip—I wonder about the difference, between downstate, and up north. Does it still exist? It must—there’s the Bay, glimmering in the late afternoon sun, I can see it even from behind the house, through bare spring trees. There’s not much like this, downstate.
I am much like my neighbor, who had a hard time recognizing winter this year. I struggle sometimes to recognize this place I’ve known for nearly sixty years. Underneath the noise, despite the traffic: cars, the Fed-Ex truck, private planes. Beach-walkers, back and forth, jet skis, zooming in and out. I have to rearrange pieces of the puzzle—move this over, push that into the background—before I can say, ah, there it is, there’s the familiar picture, the one I know.
Human beings—we can adapt to change, but should we? Should we accept winter that is not winter? Should I embrace this place as it is now—shrinking, in a way? Sometimes I see it as the scene at the wrong end of a telescope: diminished, distant.
I know, though, that my perception can change, in a moment. Like Sunday morning before we left to go back “downstate.” I sat right next to the window at the end of the table, sipping coffee, looking out. Nothing between me and the outdoors but that single sheet of glass, from which I’d taken the winter shutters a day and a half before. All was quiet: the green bank of moss (our front “lawn”), the cedar trees, the edge of the forest. Beyond, the beach was empty; the water still, under a gray sky. Overcast but peaceful, at 7 a.m.
I felt as I often do, inside the cottage at the front windows: that I was part of what I was seeing. That all I had to do was reach, a little, and I’d be in that landscape, so close was I, so real was it. And then I saw something moving in the water close to shore, a dark head, too big and too low to be a loon or a merganser. I picked up the binoculars (we often leave them on the table) and looked. A brown, sleek head just above the surface, a long body following. I knew at once: a river otter, swimming up the Bay.
I’d never seen one before, although I remember my parents reporting sightings several years in a row. Come look, I told Sally, and she peered through the binoculars as the otter swam out of sight.
The water rises, river otters appear. Things change, sometimes for ill but now and then, for better. I stood as the otter swam out of view and hoped to see it again.
I stood at the window, and hoped.