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March 2008 Entry

"The Best February Ever"

That’s a bold claim to lay before a reader, I know, but as baseball great Dizzy Dean put it, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

      Start with the weather. The words “February in Quebec” sum it up pretty well, though there are people for whom those words might evoke something more like . . . fear and loathing. For me, other seasons in other places have their charms, and the world offers plenty of great scenery and weather, but way down in my Canadian soul, I am profoundly stirred by that cold heart of winter — the short, bright days, the flying snow, and the deep blue freeze of winter nights. As French-Canadian songwriter Gilles Vigneault sang, “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” — My country is not a country, it is winter.

      And the air — so fresh and crisp and bracing, so delicious to breathe, even as it pinches your nostrils shut. It would be hard to prove, but I swear there is such a thing as the smell of snow. One time I was trying to name my favorite drink, and thought of the morning ritual of fresh orange juice with half a blood orange squeezed in (for sweetness and color), the full glass placed in the freezer for a few minutes to get that Popsicle zest, or perhaps the end-of-day Macallan on ice, with its fiery amber glow. But eventually I decided my favorite drink is February in Quebec.

      Whenever I’m not off plying my trade in other parts of the world, I am mainly based in Southern California these days, but I always try to arrange my life and work to spend a few weeks in Quebec around February. Perhaps my affection for that time of year in the Laurentian Mountains comes from my love of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but even beyond that ­— even just looking out the window — it is soul-stirring. Snowscapes, woodsmoke, and a frostbitten, dripping nose have been part of my reality since childhood, and that season, in that part of the world, must be my favorite combination of time and place.

Considered in those terms, February 2008 in Quebec was just about perfect. The storms of December and January had piled the snow waist-deep, and white billows and pillows rounded the trees and rooftops. The daily temperatures were generally in my ideal cross-country ski range, five or ten degrees below freezing, and the skies were either crystal blue or dashed with flying snow. One morning at first light I woke up and looked through the window above my head to see a million snowflakes dancing in the air, swirling in patterns like a ballet of white atoms, a life-size snowglobe, and I found myself saying, automatically, “Hello beautiful!”

      Words like that came into my mind on many days, and many nights, too, like looking up through that same window at the piercing stars and latticed treetops. But the beauty was most keenly felt when I was out in it, wandering the woods on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Nearly every day I dressed in my multi-layered winter wardrobe and headed for the trails, and this year it happens that such an aerobic, full-body workout was a perfect fitness program for pre-tour conditioning. In just a few weeks I will have to put on my drummer hat instead of my black balaclava and “Be Yourself” wool cap (bought at a London performance of the excellent musical Billy Elliot, which I attended with Carrie while we were there on tour last October). Early in March I will have to start preparing for another series of concerts, a “continuation” of the Snakes and Arrows tour. (The Snakes and Arrows “surge,” I call it.) 

      We had planned to end the tour in Europe last fall, but apparently more people want to see us, or see us again, so we were asked to do more shows. Some of them will be in places we haven’t got to for a while, like New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Winnipeg, and that is nice, plus we plan to make a few changes to the setlist and presentation to freshen it up a little. Although the world knows by now that I’m not crazy about touring, I sure don’t discount the good fortune that we can still do it, personally and professionally — that we can play better than ever, and that people will come and see us. That’s not something I have ever taken for granted. As I have said to friends who might be having their own work difficulties, “At least if I have to work, I’m glad I can.” And not just any old job, of course — pretty much the best job there is — but none-the-less a hard one.

      Another semi-professional (literally) activity this season has been getting back to playing the marimba. My old beginner’s instrument had been disassembled and stored for a few years, but I was moved to set it up again in my front hallway, which is like a small chapel (a chapel to nature, with big windows open to the view of white forest and lake). The marimba had a warm resonance in that setting, as I riffed on my older exercises, “Pieces of Eight” and “Momo’s Dance Party,” and improvised more-or-less aimlessly on some new ideas. Just for fun.

During those few precious weeks when I remained free and unfettered by schedules or itineraries, out wandering on the snow-covered trails, I tried to take at least one photograph every day. A little over a year ago I started experimenting with the use of photos in these stories, and found the combination inspiring, so from then on, and for that purpose, I made the effort to take more motorcycling photos on tour. Similarly, this winter I wanted to try to fully capture this very different experience and setting.

      Carrying my camera every day in my backpack, and looking around me at all the fetching combinations of landscape and snowscape, I experimented with different ways of framing the scenery. One innovation I came up with was the “Tip-Cam,” where I would bend down to shoot a scene across the tips of my skis, to give it more perspective.     

      Here is an example, where I was about to enter an avenue between groves of silver birches.

While I skied through the woods on all those glorious winter days, kicking and gliding along the flats of the old railroad tracks, as pictured above, or flying downhill between the leafless trees and snow-dappled evergreens with mingled fear and excitement, or laboring uphill with my skis splayed out herringbone style, I tried to find the words to express what it was about cross-country skiing that I loved so much.

      For one thing, I believe that no sport is more beautiful in its setting than cross-country skiing. The only possible comparison might be wilderness hiking. Long-distance cycling and running, for example, must usually be done in less picturesque surroundings — public roads in most cases — and endurance swimming is too often confined to counting laps in an indoor pool. But the snowy woods, and the trails through them, are always pretty. And unlike roads, urban paths, or swimming lanes, there is no traffic.

      On weekdays, I could ski for two or three hours and in that whole time maybe encounter one or two other skiers, and often no one. On weekends, when more people were on the ski trails, I could snowshoe into the neighboring woods on remote paths and see nothing but animal tracks.

      But cross-country skiing is my favorite, for its rhythmic swing, and the special state of mind it engenders. The southern Laurentians have a world-class network of cross-country trails, and by the time I get on them, in early afternoon, the trails are already broken through any fresh snow, either by other skiers or the local association’s snowmobile trail-groomer. Many times I have noticed that as soon as I plant my skis in those parallel tracks in the snow and push off, it seems as though my mind is suddenly transported. It’s almost like a kind of trance, especially on one of my favorite trails, a ten-mile, multi-textured loop that I can only compare to the rhythm of a good flow yoga practice.

      The Opening Meditation is a mile or so of that old railroad track, pictured above, where I just groove along with a steady, fairly effortless pace. Then the Sun Salutations, as I turn uphill for a long ascent through varying degrees of gentle climb and laborious herringbone. The summit leads to several miles of alternating ups and downs, the chatarungas and standing poses, working different parts of the body as well as the core, so that despite the cold, my inner clothes are soaked with sweat. And all the while, the winter woods flow by, the fractaled deciduous trees and the piebald evergreens, snow beneath, sky above, the delicious air drawn in with relaxed, ujayi breaths.

      Choosing a sheltered grove or open overlook, depending on the wind, I might pause to snack on a raspberry yogurt granola bar and apple juice (this winter’s favorite combo — last year it was peanut butter cups and cranapple). Then on again, up and down, until a couple of hours later I close the loop, and glide down the long slope to the same stretch of meditative flats I started with. My mind is at rest, knowing the hard climbs and perilous descents are behind me, and that final, easy cruise feels like the equivalent of shivasana, the traditional closing to a yoga practice. That’s when all you have to do is lie there, which is no big deal in itself, but it feels so blissful after the arduous workout that led up to it. As I have written before about such spiritual states of mingled satisfaction and relief, like after a hard show or a long motorcycle journey, you can’t just wake up and feel that good about lying down — it’s a reward that only has value according to how much you have paid for it.

  photo by Carrie Nuttall

While I’m skiing along, my arms and legs are working away like a locomotive, but require little thought to guide them, especially after all these years (I first learned to cross-country ski while working at nearby Le Studio, in the early ’80s). Above it all, as it were, my mind is spinning like a generator, taking that energy and converting it into a train of thought that can go anywhere. And does.

      Tangents both shallow and deep, from cars to literary analysis, problem-solving to wool-gathering, pondering how to answer a strange e-mail from a friend, or a decision on this or that question, resolving to write soon to another neglected friend (I have so many neglected friends), searching for words to capture the world around and within at that moment, and often, an old song plays in the background of all those thoughts.

      Yet the cross-country skiing state of mind has a wonderful sense of composure. That word seems absent from running, in my experience, with the jarring impacts and heavy breathing, and is even rare in cycling, unless you’re spinning along a flat, empty road. On the ski trails, while I’m kicking and gliding through the snowy landscape, thoughts parade through my mind in a somehow stately fashion, without urgency. Even issues that, at home or in the car, were stressful, can be considered calmly, one at a time. Or not at all, as I choose. 

  photo by Gino Ramacieri

However, I did have other, more serious matters to think about, for this was a working vacation. (That might be a recipe for an ideal life: a working vacation that never ends.) Apart from preparing for the upcoming shows physically, there was a lot of “executive” work to take care of, and I could only try to deal with all that in the mornings, to leave the afternoons free for snow sports. With Hugh Syme doing the real work, I still had to supervise the cover for a CD of our shows from Rotterdam last October, plus a revised edition of the tour book to include photos from earlier this tour, review the live mixes, and field countless questions from the office, bandmates, and crew members about arrangements, schedules, and decisions. And I did feel I ought to contribute something new to Bubba’s Book Club, after a long hiatus because of last year’s busy touring schedule, so I spent a few mornings working on that. But at least those jobs could all be handled by the relatively unobtrusive e-mail. All I care is that my phone doesn’t ring, and that every day I can get out in the woods.

      And thus the high-tech world definitely has its place in my winter wonderland. Why, this year I even made the leap to modern fiberglass skis, instead of the antiquated wooden ones I had been clinging to for many years. The new ones steer better, are much lighter, and I learned to choose a wax a few degrees “warmer,” and apply it more frequently, to get the same versatility as the wooden ones.

      Same with snowshoes. I had always stayed with my quaint varnished-wood-and-sinew racquets, but this year I finally surrendered to the undeniable advantages of man-made materials. Perhaps they are not quite so elegant, but — as I feel about vintage drums, motorcycles, and cars, for example — some things were always nice, but new ones are better.

Home from the snowy trail, showered and changed, “it’s good to rest my bones beside the fire,” as Roger Waters put it in that great old Floyd song. As the light fades, I build up the fire, savor a Macallan on ice, and look out at another winter sunset. The last spark of orange filters through the snow-covered hemlocks and firs to the southwest, and the snow is gilded with soft light. Twilight is a magical time here, as the snow gradually fades and glows through an unbelievable range of tints and shadows. Carrying my glass, I move from one window to another to watch the show.

      I am also glad that February in Quebec is a gift that can be shared, and after a couple of weeks on my own, it was great to have Carrie join me for ten days of the finest winter she has experienced — as a native-born Californian facing her husband’s native land in its harshest season. As she stepped out in her own new snowshoes, and joined me on the cross-country trails, I christened her Notre Dame de la Neige — Our Lady of the Snow.

      And here’s a telling moment — a few years ago, after twenty-five years of having a place in Quebec, I was thinking about moving away from certain disturbing memories, and building a new place on a piece of land I’d bought in Ontario. That summer Carrie was with me in Quebec, reveling in the area’s excellent grocery stores and restaurants, and the lovely scenery and serenity, and one day she said to me, “Are you sure you want to leave this area?”

      Well, no, I wasn’t sure, and before long I decided to stay. As I described it in Traveling Music, this is my soulscape. I went ahead and sold the old place, and built a new one across the lake — a place to collect new memories. This February was my first stay there, other than a few days in December to organize the place, so that was another reason why it was the Best February Ever.

      One first-time visitor to the area was my friend Matt Scannell, who arrived for a weekend visit soon after Carrie’s departure. Matt lives in Los Angeles now, but grew up in Massachusetts, so he is no stranger to winter. He took to snowshoeing right away, and as we tramped around the nearby woods, or across the blinding white, wind-blown Sahara of the lake, he and I dreamed up a spectacular new stage production, on a scale with Riverdance, Cirque de Soleil, and Ice Capades, that we are going to call, “SNOWDANCE: Lord of the Snows.”

      As we traded ideas, the vision grew into a concept for a massive, over-the-top production, on a vast stage of artificial snow, with dramatic lighting effects, soaring synthesizer music with dynamic percussion, lasers and pyro, dry ice, and a huge cast of performers, all on snowshoes. Just imagine the choreography . . .

  photo by Matt Scannell

Uniquely among my friends, Matt and I have developed a certain “arch” tone of conversation, so that sometimes we discuss absurdities as if we were serious. As the subject matter veers into deliberate surreality, we go on talking with complete sincerity, a kind of faux earnestness built on conscious irony. In that spirit, we envisioned a logo consisting of a sparkly snowflake beside the word SNOWDANCE, spelled out in big silver glitter letters against, say, powder blue. I figured that every woman of a certain age would want a sweatshirt like that. Matt thought probably everyone in the world would want a sweatshirt like that.

      I spread my arms, all innocent frankness, and said to Matt, “I know it might seem shallow to jump straight to thinking of ideas for the merch, when here we are conceiving such a vast enterprise of artistic genius, but hey — I can’t help but see the entire creative rainbow that lays before us.”

      I shook my head with amazement, “You know, when you and I are together, all I can say is, ‘Magic happens.’”

      From then on that was the theme for our weekend together in the north: “Magic happens.”

      Here is Matt, making some magic happen on the ’shoes — “Bustin’ a move, kickin’ it old school, all right, bring on the noise, bring on the funk.” This is just a hint of what will be brought to the stage in “SNOWDANCE: Lord of the Snows.” Watch for it.

After Matt’s visit, I had a little more time to myself, then a brief appearance by Brutus, who also did some impressive snowdancing on the snowshoes — though unintended, in his case. He just fell.

      I also shared my February with the woodland animals, whose tracks I tried to decipher in the snowy woods, identifying deer, fox, squirrel, and snowshoe hare. My man Keith, who looks after the property while I’m off, you know, paying for it, and his helper Pierre installed the new location of my multi-leveled bird feeder, Chef Ellwood’s Birdbrain Café. The black-capped chickadees discovered it on the first morning, and I was happy to see them flitting in and out in their cheery, gregarious mobs. The chickadees were soon joined by a calmer, but no less sociable group, the common redpolls, with their delicate russet plumage and bright vermilion caps. Mrs. hairy woodpecker dropped by to sample the suet, and a solitary red-breasted nuthatch was an occasional diner, seeing off the chickadees if they crowded him too much. I recognized the spirit of a fellow cranky hermit.

      In any account of this Best February Ever, I would have to include the lunar eclipse. Around ten o’clock on the night of the seventeenth, Carrie and I watched Earth’s shadow start to slip across the bright moon, framed among the bare, black trees. Like the Christmas song, “Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel” — it was minus twenty outside, so we watched from indoors, with all the lights off but the fireplace. “A world lit only by fire,” as an eloquent historian described the not-too-distant past.

      Across the radiant, silver-blue snow, the trees stretched dark, sharp-etched shadows, silhouettes that gradually faded as the darkness crossed the moon. Finally the sphere turned a dull orange, and the stars shone brighter in the eerie dimness. Long minutes later, a spark of silver fire returned to the opposite edge of the moon, and crept across its mournful face. The light radiated down across our snowbound world, and the forest began to glow again. Magic happens.

      Back in the early twentieth century, before color photography was widely seen, Canadian landscape painters exhibiting their work in Britain were derided by British art critics for portraying such obvious absurdities as pink and purple snow. Any resident of a Nordic country knows the palette of winter colors ranges from delicate pinks to sparkling silver to deep soulful blue to a brilliant, blinding Arctic white with prismatic, diamond-like sparks. When I look at paintings of winter landscapes by artists from other northern countries, in Scandinavia or Russia, I see the same qualities of light and color.

      And they make me smile.  Because magic happens.

  photo by Carrie Nuttall

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