By Greg Clark, January 8, 1938
“Do you realize,” said Jimmie Frise, more to make conversation than anything, “that right now, in the dead of winter, there are more than 40 different kind of birds living right around us here in Ontario?”
“Song birds?” I inquired.
“Yes, song birds,” stated Jim, “although they aren’t singing just now.”
“The silly things,” I said.
“Ah, they’re quite happy,” said Jim. “You see, a bird’s normal temperature is over 130 degree. They don’t feel the cold the way we do.”
“The silly things,” I repeated. “When they’ve got the means to go south. When all they’ve got to do is up and fly away, and in about a week’s easy going, be in Mexico or Yucatan.”
“Well, you see,” explained Jim, “these are northern birds. They nest up in the Arctic. They think this is real balmy to-day. They’ve come a thousand miles south already. They think this is down south.”
“Huh,” said I.
“It’s all a matter, “elucidated Jim, “of relativity. The birds that nest here go south. The birds that nest in the Arctic come down here.”
“And the ones that nest in the south?” I inquired.
“They go right into the tropics,” said Jim. “Birds are very discontented.”
“Discontented?” I scoffed. “You mean smart. They grew wings. And what did we grow? Just legs. Fat, slow, lumbering legs. And where can we go on legs?”
“Ah, but we grew brains,” pointed out Jim.
“Well,” I maintained, “a bird has brains too. All it needs. And when a bird thinks, with its little brain, that it wants to go to Mexico, all it does is get up and fly there. But when we, with our big, fat brains, think we want to go to Mexico, what do we do? Can we get up and go there? No, sir. We can just sit here and think about it. I think humans are saps, if you want to know.”
“We stay here,” argued Jim, because we’ve got the ability to build houses and be warm. A bird can’t protect itself against the winter, so it has to leave.”
“Still, the more I think of it,” I insisted, “the more I think humans are saps. If instead of wasting time learning how to build houses we had grown wings, we’d have been better off in the end. Now that we have chosen to remain in one place and dig ourselves in, what good does it do us? Are we any better off, sitting here like slugs in a cave, than if we were skittering hither and yon? I mean, use your common sense, Jimmie. Who decided for us that we would be better off stuck down in one spot, the way we are? That’s what I want to know. Who chose for us all this living and dying in one spot, like a lot of cabbages?”
“Good heavens,” said Jim, “you can’t rebel against human nature.”
“As a matter of fact,” said he, “it takes a long time to alter human nature or any kind of nature. It takes ages of time and countless generations. One thing is sure, we two can’t change. Each of us is like a coin stamped out in a mint. All that ever happens to us is that we grow a little worn and faded. But the imprint stays on us to the end.”
“It’s cruel,” I said.
“And the comical part of it is” went on Jim, “that for countless ages to come, there will be guys exactly like us, thinking the same silly things, yearning and dreaming, but never changing a whit.”
“It’s dreadful,” I muttered. “I’d like to meet up with those birds, about two million years ago, who decided to be us.”
“There is only one thing to do,” said Jim, a little importantly. “And that is, make the best of it. Instead of running away from life, attack it. Instead of cringing from cold and dark and fear, stand up and walk right into it.”
“Ah,” said I. “Hero stuff.”
“Not at all,” said Jim. “Life in the end is just one slow, steady defeat. Nobody ever wins. We lose our strength. We see all our works crumble. Our friends fall away. We die. We can’t possibly escape, so why run? Why always be cringing and whimpering and running like hell?”
“Who’s running?” I demanded.
“Why,” cried Jim, “you were even wanting to fly.”
“I was merely wanting,” I stated with dignity, “to be comfortable.”
“Comfort,” stated Jim, “is relative. Here we are sitting in a comfortable house, slouched down in a couple of easy chairs, with soft music coming from Los Angeles, across five thousand miles of blizzard, and there isn’t a thing we want, from a drink of water to a heated sixty-mile-an-hour vehicle out in our heated garage, that we can’t have. On a night of storm and tempest, here we are as snug as a couple of bugs in a buffalo rug. Yet in five minutes, without the slightest effort, we can be in a beautiful theatre looking at the greatest actors and most beautiful actresses culled from America, England, Germany, Sweden. Or, in ten minutes, we can be sitting at a silver cluttered table, in a swell cafe, eating chicken sandwiches made by a French chef.
“Mmmm,” said I, sitting up.
To Escape From Comfort
“Yet,” said Jim, “I am willing to bet you that there are men, at this very hour, lying in a little silk tent in a deep excavation in the snow, a thousand miles north of us, with their husky dogs snuggled around and a fire burning gaily: and those men, miles from any human habitation, lost in a wild blizzard raging, are more comfortable than we are.”
“What will they be eating?” I inquired.
“Bacon,” said Jim, “and flapjacks smothered in maple syrup.”
“Mmmm,” I repeated, sitting up higher and scratching my head
“You see?” said Jim. “The less comfort you have, the more you enjoy comfort. The trouble with us is, we never escape from comfort. To really enjoy life, we ought to expose ourselves to discomfort a little more than we do. We ought to take up skiing, or go for long tramps in the open. We ought to suffer our climate occasionally, so as to appreciate how cleverly we have skunked it.”
“To tell the truth, Jim,” I confessed, “I’ve often looked at those pictures of winter camping in the outdoor magazines with a curious impulse. I’ve darn near gone on winter camping trips.”
“Darn near isn’t near enough,” retorted Jim.
“Many’s the time,” I assured him, “I’ve thought of having a winter house party up at our cottage.”
And Jim, with a joyous glitter in his eye, slowly rose from amongst the cushions of the big chair, and looked at me with open mouth. And that is how it came about.
Our first idea, then and there talked out and elaborated for a lovely and enthusiastic hour, was to take all our families. We even got to the list of provisions. We even telephoned long distance for forty cents to the postmaster at the little village, seven miles from the summer resort, to ask how the roads were at this time of year. And he told us they were swell. Plowed every day.
But our families were all tied up. Jim’s had skiing party engagements and Sunday teas; mine had all promised themselves in various ways for at least three week-ends to come.
But those lists of provisions fairly burned in our pockets. And when Jimmie took me up to his attic closet and emptied out old dunnage bags full of mackinaw coats and hunting pants and oil-tanned moccasins that hadn’t been used for fifteen years, the family side of the enterprise began to fade anyway.
“They’d turn it,” said Jim, “into a taffy-pulling, dish-washing, community-singing sort of thing. We’ll make it stag. We’ll just go up and spend the week-end tramping over the hills and visiting the settlers in their snowed-in cabins. Will they be surprised?”
“And,” I said, “we can take along our guns in case we jump a cottontail.”
“And,” contributed Jim, “I’ll bring along that Bird Guide of mine and we can identify some winter birds.”
“Swell,” I agreed.
A White Vastness
Really, the drive up was beautiful. The highways are kept scraped as clean as the pavement. The vast white country, miles and miles, is utterly new, despite all the years we have passed through it in summer. A thousand interesting and old-fashioned interests attract the eye, the farmers in sleighs, the villages and towns so steamy and quaint-looking under their mantles of white. Except for Jim’s anti-freeze having got thin and a little boil-up we had south of Severn Bridge, we made as good time as we do in July. But the engine boiling halted us a good hour on the road and then we had to go by easy stages until we got to a garage; and in all a couple of hours were lost. But even the visits to garages were interesting in winter. Everybody up north has a different air, in the off season.
At last we reached the gravel road that goes east towards “the Lake,” as we call it, and here the plowing was not so governmental as on the highways. In fact, we slowed down to about 15. I think all those country drivers you see bumbling along at 15 in summer practice most of their driving in winter.
It was dusk when we passed through the village, the last outpost of civilization. We stopped in to see the postmaster and storekeeper and had a jovial chat. It was dark when we started the last seven miles in to the cottage. But the headlights threw a glorious beam on the fantastic and wholly unfamiliar scenery of the road we knew in summer. And when we reached the lane that leads down to the lake, by the cottage, the snow-clad boards pointed down two deep ruts between enormous lake-blown drifts, and we knew we could take the car no farther.
Shouldering our packs and provision boxes we left the car at the corner and walked down the ruts. Under the stars, a white vastness stretched afar where in summer the dark lake lay. With merry shouts and scrunching feet and not a little leaving of boxes of provisions to be come back for later, we followed the ruts past the last settler’s house its lights glimmering in the distance, and waded through drifts along the abandoned road, past strange shuttered cottages of neighbors, utterly foreign now and came with a feeling of Commander Peary, to our own cottage, memorable despite the masses of snow, crouched amidst its tapering firs.
We unlocked the door. It was bitter. I lit a match and fumbled up at the iron switch box that turns on the power. It clicked. But no light came.
“H’m,” I remembered. “They cut off the power into here at the end of the season.”
“There’ll be lamps?” said Jim.
With matches, I hunted lamps in remote back shelves of closets. But careful housewives had emptied lamps.
“Get the fire on the hearth,” I cried cheerily, “while I find the coal oil.”
So Jim, with matches went out and scratched up kindling at the woodpile against the house and I went seeking. All the tins rang hollow. In vain. I searched drawers for candles, looked along the mantel for colored candles in silly summer candlesticks. There were none. Jim was kneeling at the stone fireplace, and faint flames fluttered uncertainly.
“The kindling is wet,” he said. “Frozen. You never should pile wood against the house, on account of the autumn drip. It soaks it”
“Get her going,” I said. “This house is like a tomb. It’s colder than outside.”
Jim struggled and burned leaping flares of newspaper, and piled and repiled the kindling but got no fire.
“Here” I said, “You go and pick up those boxes of provisions we left and at the same time drop in at the settler’s. It’s only couple of hundred yards beyond, and borrow a bottle of coal oil. I’ll show you a fire.”
A Losing Battle
So Jim went out into the starry night and I got to work on the fire. But it was true. A woodpile that does fine against the house in hot summer is no good for winter. All the wood was frozen. I went out and floundered about breaking twigs off trees I got a little fire going but the larger wood refused to take hold. I went out and tore down the woodpile to get at some of the under sticks. But autumn’s drip had saturated them all. Jim was a long time coming home.
In the intervals of making the fire blaze a little, I pulled cots out of the adjoining rooms and set them in front of the fireplace. I put the dunnage bags on them. Spread out some of my stuff.
I heard Jim coming in. At the moment, the fire happened to be just failing for the tenth time
“I called at the settler’s,” said Jim, “but there was nobody home but a big black dog who wouldn’t let me look around the woodshed or anything.”
So we went out and floundered in the drifts and collected two or three large armfuls of twigs and what we hoped were dead branches, and I found a couple of pieces of loose board on the back veranda, and we got enough fire going to light the room enough to spread out our blankets. But the chunks of maple we leaned up so invitingly in the blaze would not take fire. They hissed. They sizzled. But they would not take fire.
“Let’s get into bed,” said Jim, “while we have enough light to see.”
Which we did. And it was good, with all our clothes on, to snuggle down amongst the blankets and lie watching the little fire fight and struggle and snap and crackle in its valiant battle for existence. But even as we drowsed, we knew it was a losing battle.
In the night, a moaning waked us, and on the window, we could hear the sound of snow. The room was dark, the fire was dead.
“Blizzard,” said Jim, heavily.
As host, I went into the adjoining room and brought out a couple of mattresses to lay on top of us.
In the morning, gray and terrible, the window was snowed up and a drift had blown in unseen cracks. The floor was inches deep in places and our boots lifted pathetic mouths up out of it, as though gasping. Jim crouched out of bed and hastily burned some more newspapers.
“We can go out,” he said, “and find some wood now. We’ll be eating in half an hour.”
“Jim,” I said, emptying my boot, “how about eating at that Chinese restaurant we had supper in last night?”
“That’s 30 miles,” stated Jim.
“Even so,” I suggested.
So we got dressed stiffly and packed up our stuff and carried it out to the car, which was all but drifted under; and, it being Sunday, no snow-plow came by this early, so it was a long, anxious drive the seven miles out to the postmaster’s, where we had breakfast and bought shovel and waited until the snow-plow came by, and enjoyed a long, pleasant conversation about the old pioneer days with plenty of extra cups of coffee.
Editor’s Notes: This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise (1977).
Coal Oil is a fuel not unlike kerosene, derived from coal rather than petroleum. Some would still refer to kerosene as “coal oil”.