The ice – cornered – clings,
The sun above seeks it out.
The earth returns.
The ice – cornered – clings,
The sun above seeks it out.
The earth returns.
Best summed up by Tom Waits really.
It only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of bone
No prayers for November
To linger longer
Stick your spoon in the wall
We’ll slaughter them all
November has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November’s cold chain
Made of wet boots and rain
And shiny black ravens
On chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
You’re my firing squad
With my hair slicked back
With carrion shellac
With the blood from a pheasant
And the bone from a hare
Tied to the branches
Of a roebuck stag
Left to wave in the timber
Like a buck shot flag
Go away you rainsnout
Go away, blow your brains out
As an Irishman, winter’s here.
It began on November 1, not December 21 – the incomprehensibly late date observed in the United States.
The timing of the seasons is something the Celts got right. The drenching skies, low clouds, and fading daylight of November mean winter, not autumn/fall.
Leaping into the hardest season on the morning after Halloween means that, by the time Christmas arrives, you’re halfway through. And the days are getting longer by then, too. How could winter just be starting at that time?
I picked up the ‘winter in November’ belief at school in Ireland, and I’m fairly sure that it’s a commonly-held belief there to this day.
So, it’s hard – as someone who now lives in Oregon – to accept that the forthcoming 48 hours of chilly rain is just another fall weekend. And don’t get me started on the other cultural divide that pops up at this time of year – the pumpkin spice latte.
Whether I’m living in the right season or not, I’m guaranteed to be doing one thing this weekend – spending too much time sheltering indoors. Which for me, means a lot of time listening to music.
And what better music to listen to in Portland, in November, than an album called ‘Winter Light’, by an acoustic jazz combo called ‘Oregon’.
Who says I’m not in tune with the seasons?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.
I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.
Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.
This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.
Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.
“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.
In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.
Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.
Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.
It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.
Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.
This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.
And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.
Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.
Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.
Portland is many things but it’s not quiet. At least it’s not in the area of north Portland where we live.
Traffic is fairly steady in the streets around our end of N Mississippi Avenue, where the nearby I-5 provides a fairly constant background hum in the daytime hours. It’s not intrusive, just an ever-present feature.
It’s also one you don’t notice until it’s gone. Which is what happened over the past 48 hours, as a winter snowstorm hit the Rose City.
And so, confronted last night by sub-zero temperatures, slick streets and frozen pavements, I did the first, if slightly reckless, thing that came to mind: I stepped out for a five-mile walk.
What struck me was the silence.
Earlier that day I had read a Guardian article on the theme of walking through an urban area at night. One of the most common observations of those who undertook such outings was the lack of noise, the absence of traffic, other pedestrians, construction activity.
Walking down N Alberta Street now, there was no evening rush. MLK was quiet – the motorists who had ventured out were sticking to a crawl as they navigated frozen, untreated roads. There were few pedestrians on the slippy pavements, and the cafes and bars of the Alberta Arts District were forlornly empty.
And so I walked. For miles (more than five, to be exact), across snowy pavements and intersections, meeting only the occasional dog-walker or stubborn pedestrian. When I did, as Pablo Neruda wrote, we were all together “in a sudden strangeness”.
This was a different Portland, one I hadn’t seen and one which appears only very occasionally. It showed me a different city, the physical structures and thoroughfares standing apart, freed from the constant, sometimes choking, activity that passes through and around them.
One of the contributors to the Guardian feature wrote that, at night when the streets are deserted, “the empty city feels like it’s yours…you feel outside the world”. So it was for me, for one night at least, in snow-struck Portland.
The dark hung above the marshland that ran from the road to the sea.
It was everything and it was nothing. It ran above the wetlands and over the dunes and on out into the water.
It moved in winter storms, or hung silent in the fog. The dawn banished it, but only slowly.
In the morning he would wake, rising into the winter blackness.
Because the routine was the man, he believed, he would put on his clothes in the same order each time, trying not to wake her.
He had run his route so often he didn’t question why he did it anymore, or if he should change it, or stop doing it.
He would run when he felt good, rested, and when he was tired or sick. Injury would stop him but he would always, eventually, run through that too.
He knew when he didn’t do this, or if didn’t do it often enough, he felt empty, like he hadn’t engaged with what the morning or with what his life offered.
He ran into the dark.
Ten minutes along the unlit causeway, the road linking the city’s edge to the dunes, he was alone.
He carried a headlamp and most mornings he used it, the thin blue light a comfort, though it barely showed the marshland’s edge.
But there were mornings he didn’t bring a light.
Then he ran by habit and experience, by guesswork and luck, facing ahead into the dark that was everything and nothing.
November. Seriously. November.
A month of damp mist, zero mellowness, no fruit. No bright colours of any sort.
All the wind and rain of December without the Christmas food and drink. A month with his hands in his pockets, stiffed on his paycheck, killing time before the place closes.
Without snow a city that just looks cold, mouldy and dirty. The dreary Dublin that emigrants don’t miss and visitors don’t see.
One man said of November in another place: “It only believes in a pile of dead leaves, and a moon that’s the colour of bone.”
Maybe he was talking about here.
And then, walking home at dusk: a clear sky after a week of rain. And silence and the fog gathering and the light dropping above the park, ten minutes from darkness in the clean, cold air, and finally home, to a good coffee or maybe something stronger.
November has its moments, even in November.
Is there a word for that chilly, clammy feeling, that sensation of cold water up, under, here, there, in and out, as you trudge across a rain-soaked hillside in early November?
There is, and it came to me as it descended Lugnaquilla amid gales and driving rain last Saturday afternoon. Visibility, if not my whole world outlook, was so limited by the worsening conditions that I’d little else to do but retreat into my own head.
I found myself there on foot of an invite I’d thrown out to friends earlier that week. It was optimistically sent, of course, during a sun-lit lunch on the last Sunday of an Autumn mild snap.
Six days later all bar one of my pals, being wiser and possibly more distrusting of the weather than I, were nowhere near the rain-whipped slopes of Wicklow.
But P and I were, and more than once we came close to winding up face-first on them.
We should have known. Because all the hopeful weather forecasts and crossed fingers in the world weren’t going to prevent the very, very typical outcome of a winter day in the Irish mountains.
Rain. In all its forms. Starting at the car, gently drops on a wispy wind. A little mist on the low slopes. Then – beware false prophets – a break halfway up. No need for raingear, even! We should do this more often!
Scratch that. Scratch that and then run to the nearest boulder, or the muddy lee-side of it, and try to pull on a pair of outer-shell trousers while balancing on your one booted leg as, in seconds, every exposed piece of underclothing is drenched.
And so it was. Our best-laid plans started to sink into the waterlogged turf of Camara Hill.
It’s often struck me that Eisenhower put a year’s worth of planning into D-Day, commissioning and monitoring long range weather reports, agonising over the launch date and kitting his troops out for an inclement sea crossing.
I wonder how he would have handled the logistics of a winter day in the Wicklow mountains?
The sun forecasted for noon didn’t show. The rain that was set to clear by 10am had returned. And that unheralded north-easterly gale was the weather gods’ practical joke on two hikers naive enough to believe weather reports.
We bore on, of course. On and up, walking a trail which became a river bed in parts, finally cresting onto the final plateau and on to the summit cairn itself.
Well, we were wet, cold and hungry, and about to get wetter, colder and hungrier, but we were hikers in the Irish hills. In November. Masochists who carry on.
Finally, that word. The one that occurred to me as another tablespoon of icy rainwater slid down my neck, across my back and on down to wherever it else it wanted to freeze.
It’s where cold meets clammy. Where wet meets damp.
Wamp. Just another wamp day in the hills.
I’m Irish; therefore I know rain.
The Gaelic word for the phenomenon, ‘baisteach’, is pretty close to my own reaction when I pull open the curtains on an October morning to be greeted by dripping leaves.
Rain. Vast soggy swathes of my youth were soaked in the stuff. Summers swept away, winters seeping into one single drenched grey mass.
In a part of my brain – call it the Celtic cortex – it never stops pouring down. Showers that struck on holidays in Galway at the age of 12 continue still; the deluge that I swam through the first time I climbed Carauntoohill continues to pour down its sodden flanks.
As an Irishman for me rain is as much a state of mind as a natural phenomenon.
Great Recent Downpours I Have Known: The 72 hour burst that drenched our American visitors on their first trip to Ireland in September 2012; the mist that soaked my wife and I as I proposed under Mweelrea mountain seven months earlier; the torrents of a single night that flooded our block’s garage in October 2011.
Magnificent falls all.
After a dry (by Irish standards) summer the rain returned to Dublin this week, three days of grey skies and damp air, broken only by dreary deluges and spot flooding.
At least in the west of Ireland they had an unlikely distraction, an apocalyptic ‘black cloud’ attacking gravestones and a church tea room.
The only memorable airbourne event I encountered in recent days was a lightning strike over Dublin Bay early on Tuesday morning which – I later discovered – struck an Aer Lingus plane.
Other than that it’s been raincoats, umbrellas and the sodden, sinking feeling that Autumn is here, with winter (read: same rain, just colder) to follow.
This persistent feeling that, regardless of how pleasant it might be today, rain is just around the corner, likely accounts for the outlook of the Irish pessimist class.
The fact that I – figuratively at least – approach many of life’s challenges with an umbrella in one hand and a dripping macintosh in the other is often remarked on by my other half.
Hailing from Southern California, where rain is seen as some quaint Old World folk memory, her usual outlook is a progressive optimism.
Guess whose approach works better?
As I write this it’s…. well, let’s just say that it’s not dry outside. But it will be tomorrow, they say. And there may even be sun, we’re promised, ‘in parts’.
Until then I’ll be – like Christy Moore – cursing this cold blow and the rainy night.
Let it rain. Just elsewhere.