For animals in the wild, sources of food become more difficult to locate. Waterways become covered over with ice. Insects hibernate and die. Vegetation shrinks back to barren sticks, often buried beneath the snow. More animals die in winter than any other season. It can be a risky, terrifying, and lonely time.
At times like these, the winter hunger comes upon us.
If we are to survive until spring, until we finally reach, as poet Mary Oliver calls it “a patch of green,” we must learn to follow our noses with an almost prayerful intensity. Slowly, so as not to bypass, in our haste and desperation, the subtle, invisible scent of what we seek. Relentlessly, so as not to linger too long, give in to despair, and lie down in the snow until we join the frozen landscape.
We must attune ourselves to our altered circumstances, to nature’s inevitable changes, and to our own most urgent needs.
One winter day, out walking along a frozen creek in the woods, the sound of water singing “the old song of brightness” beneath the ice, Mary Oliver spied the supple, dark-brown shape of a mink slinking along the edge of the stream, leaving tiny dents in the snow, searching for food.
As she says in her poem “Mink” (see below for the complete poem), “The mink had a hunger on him / bigger than his shadow, which was gathered / like a sheet of darkness” underneath his slender body. “He sniffed / slowly and thoroughly in all / four directions, as though / it was a prayer to the whole world,” attempting to “capture its beautiful smells.”
“Who knows,” she adds, “what his keen nose was / finding out. For me, it was the gift of the winter / to see him.”
Indeed, she spent the next six weeks walking through the “the terrible, gleaming loneliness” of her own winter experience, pausing often and pondering the image of the mink. Something about it sang to her, like the voice of the water, twisting and turning through the “vast, deep woods.”
The gifts of winter are often found in unexpected places, suddenly, when we’re not looking for them.
I stand at the window one winter day and watch the little birds fluttering around the feeder in our yard, squabbling over the precious seeds, squirrels flicking their tails below them, snatching up fallen scraps out of the snow, black on white. Suddenly, I see an image of myself. Desperate for food, shivering under the iron sky.
Sitting quietly one winter morning, reading Mary Oliver’s little poem, I see another image of myself. The mink both haunts and inspires me. I, too, am trying to survive another winter. To do so, I realize, I must find the particular kinds of nourishment that my body, my soul, my unique nature requires for me to thrive.
I cannot eat just any old thing.
The mink, I notice, moves right past the “seed-beaded buckthorn” trees leaning this way and that along the creek. It’s not the right sort of food, apparently, for a mink. I wonder briefly what minks eat. Fish? Frogs? Small mammals? Birds? Not seeds, in any case.
Seemingly even the winter hunger, the shadow larger than his own body, cannot make the mink consume things that are no good for him. Take note, I think. In my own winter, I find myself tempted to violate my nature, to seek nourishment from things that, in a less desperate season, I know are harmful to me.
To survive, I must sniff out what nurtures and sustains me, just as I am. I can’t survive if I ingest the kinds of food that someone else, some other species, would live on, no matter how satisfying it may be to him or her, or it.
I must stop comparing myself to others. I must remain true to my nature, or I could sicken and die, not just by eating too little, but by eating stuff that’s really wrong for me, in effect, poisoning myself.
I can only distinguish healthy from harmful foods by trusting my nose. Sniffing out those few morsels of sustenance that may still be found, even in the harshest season, hidden from my sight. I must not give up until I find what I need.
Like the mink.
The poem invites me to contemplate my unique way of being, of knowing, of living in the world, and working.
I need silence, for example. Quiet times and places. I need solitude. And yet, I need community. I require meaningful connection with others. I need love. I also need work that matters to my soul. I need to use my own powers. I need to hear my own voice, and yet to listen. I need help and to help others. I need food for thought, and space for feeling. I need to be still, to pause. And, at times, more often these days, I need to get up and move, to dance. To sing.
I need the certainty of science, and the perceptivity of poetry.
This winter, if this is for you, too, a season of hunger, do you understand what you need, really need, to stay alive? What would it mean for you to follow your nose, to trust your instincts, to know your own nature, to slink along the frozen edges of your life or work, sniffing, as the poet says, “the iron of the air, the blood of necessity”?
And if I saw you out along that frozen creek one day, would we recognize one other, kindred souls, as the mink stood up and looked at Mary Oliver, as she recognized herself in the mink? As I recognized myself in her poem?
Would this be, for us, another gift of winter?
—Jay E. Valusek
jointless as heat, was
the edge of the creek,
which was still in its coat of snow,
yet singing—I could hear it!--
the old song
It was one of those places,
turning and twisty,
that Ruskin might have painted, though
he didn’t. And there were trees
leaning this way and that,
buckthorn mostly, but at the moment
no bird, the only voice
that of the covered water—like a long,
unknotted thread, it kept
slipping through. The mink
had a hunger in him
bigger than his shadow, which was gathered
like a sheet of darkness under his
neat feet which were busy
making dents in the snow. He sniffed
slowly and thoroughly in all
four directions, as though
it was a prayer to the whole world, as far
as he could capture its beautiful
smells—the iron of the air, the blood
of necessity. Maybe, for him, even
the pink sun fading away to the edge
of the world had a smell,
of roses, or of terror, who knows
what his keen nose was
finding out. For me, it was the gift of the winter
to see him. Once, like a hot, dark-brown pillar,
he stood up—and then he ran forward, and was gone.
I stood awhile and then walked on
over the white snow: the terrible, gleaming
loneliness. It took me, I suppose,
something like six more weeks to reach
finally a patch of green, I paused so often
to be glad, and grateful, and even then carefully across
the vast, deep woods I kept looking back.
—Mary Oliver, What Do We Know (2002)