Picnic spot

RURAL AMERICA — For reasons I can’t even begin to unravel I missed Christmas last month, missed it completely. No tree, no family, no multitude of heavenly hosts, no hope. December was the culmination of the worst year of my entire long life. Many of you will know whereof I speak.

This month feels a little better so I grabbed my cameras on a recent snowy January day and went looking for Christmas, and there it was, not in a town square, not in a church, but in my back yard. No manger, no fancy star, and certainly no wise men, but you take happiness where you can get it.

It’s a simple enough outdoor place, a limestone fire pit, furniture designed and built by the owner (well, me) and, just beyond the tables a fifty-foot drop to a gurgling stream. It’s a contemplative place, refreshingly silent unless there is a breeze pushing through the trees, so I took a photo of the spot, and felt better. Off to the side three deer slowly arose, then took off toward the hollow, my camera clicking away, them reminding me that they were here first.

Over the past couple of weeks there has been snow here, unsullied, silen, and worthy of all of our errant memories of childhood winters. There is a smell to new snow that I can’t really describe, both fresh and flat, an ode to the ephemerality of it in this, a bleak midwinter. Last summer I gave my two really fast sleds to the children of the guy who does my plumbing. All I asked was that they not sue me when their children go hurtling headlong into trees. Actually, ‘really fast’ doesn’t begin to describe the speed one can attain in the proper snow. I hope they enjoy themselves.

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Late at night coyotes have been making their way through the deep snow past my house, yipping, keening and just generally letting everyone know that huddling in place might be a wise idea on these cold nights. Up the graveled road just before the blacktop, pheasants step lightly, gracefully from the snow-filled ditches to work on the grasses at the edge where the snowplow has cleared to grass level.

Yesterday I gave up isolation for a bit, driving to a nearby town to pump gasoline into my car, and I was surprised to note that a truck next to me sported a large “Trump” flag and the bed of the truck was a painted Confederate flag. OK, maybe I wasn’t really surprised and, if nothing else, these kinds of displays let me know whom to avoid. I used to remind myself that these are my people, that they sat in the same classrooms as I did a long time ago, that I should give them space to believe whatever they like. I was wrong, and I need to quit going to town.

As it turns out Christmas has been here all along; even on the hottest days of summer it’s here. It’s not a place, or even necessarily a specific religious belief, but don’t worry, I’m not going to offer some sweet Hallmark card version of how good life is because sometimes it truly isn’t. In the meantime, spring is out there somewhere, slowly making her way to my place, and when she arrives I’ll return to the picnic area, repair the stone walls, rebuild a couple of chairs, then invite all of you to join me. It will be brilliant.

Ullrich is a free-lance writer who resides in rural Jackson County, Iowa. His book, “The Iowa State Fair,” is available from the University of Iowa Press.