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Writer seeks respite from long winter

JOHN PEPIN

“Saint Valentine drove a red Continental with a headlight out and a dent in the side. He swore it wasn’t his, it was only a rental, but he drove it every single night.” — Joe Ely

Over the past few days, heavenly bodies, not the likes of Michelangelo’s David or Italy’s Gina Lollobrigida, have been occupying my thoughts.

Rather, it’s been celestial objects, the sun, the moon and the stars.

After some cold nights and snowy days, the gray skies and deeply piled snow had begun to weigh on my psyche like a heaviness bent on bending me over like a weeping willow tree.

It was like cabin fever with a twist, because I didn’t have to be in a cabin or cooped up in a house to feel lost, off-key and just plain downed, out of my head.

I lost my enthusiasm for any of the fun things I like to do. I’m pretty sure I was suffering from a blotch of seasonal affective disorder.

But my attention slowly began to turn toward the skies above, which ultimately helped set me on a better course.

The first thing that happened was the sun shone for more than one day in a row.

This was truly amazing!

Even though the temperatures had remained chilly, just seeing the sunlight diffused through the bare tree trunks, brought me up. I felt like a houseplant growing toward the window glass.

Soon, the sun was higher in the sky, striking farther up along the roofline of the houses and warming the darkest things – including me in my dark winter jacket.

The treetops seemed to be nodding in approval. The sunlight reflected off the bright white snow, brightening everything.

I was situated on a south-facing vantage point, soaking in all the sun I could.

For days, it seemed like there had been no sun for weeks and weeks.

Based on the number of tracks I was seeing, crisscrossing over the crust of the snow, I think the animals had become more active now that the sun had finally peeked its face out from behind that big thick layer of gray clouds.

As the wheel in the sky tumbled its way from east to west, I noticed it was considerably later than usual for the sun to still be relatively high in the sky. The days were lengthening – about 2 minutes more each day.

This extension of daylight brought me hopes of even brighter, longer days around the groundhog’s corner where is said to lie an early spring. Oh, just the thought of green grass, sun showers and spring crocuses and daffodils.

In about six weeks, robins will be back in the yards, hopping and cocking their heads, listening for earthworms, with the males singing their cheery songs, setting up nesting territories, hoping to attract mates.

Many of the birds we know and love as familiar characters in our spring and summertime memories have already begun their long migration journeys north.

Driving home one night I noticed the brightness of the planet Venus following me outside my driver’s side window. It seemed so clear and close, like I could just reach up and grab that first “star” of the evening in my hand.

It sure didn’t seem about 91 million miles away. It was a spectacular sight on a clear early evening. I saw the planet again the next night and the next.

When the weekend arrived, it brought with it the luxurious nighttime light produced by a super snow moon. That’s a full moon in February when the moon is closest to earth, which makes the planet’s only satellite appear about 7 percent closer and brighter.

The light was incredible. I looked toward the south to see the constellation Orion sitting high above a crinkle of clouds that extended up over the tree line. The stars set in the hunter’s belt glimmered in the pale sky.

Overall, stars in the night sky were much dimmer tonight, out shone by the light of the sun reflected off the moon. The second night was more dramatic than the first.

Gorgeous blue shadows stretched across the snow to the dark corners of the yard.

I could clearly make out the forms of a doe and two yearlings, lying in the snow under the apple trees. Only the head of one of the young deer was visible.

The shadows and the moonlight danced together, creating a wonderful crystal-blue snow scene that was soothing and deeply moving to observe. Like clean fresh air I sought to inhale it in deep breaths.

I wanted my brain to remember these pictures forever.

Somewhere along the line, as the days toppled forward, I sensed Valentine’s Day was around the corner. That was another realization that made me smile inside.

I prefer the simple and silly aspects of the Feast of St. Valentine’s commemoration to the confounding and complicated nature of real love relationships.

I remember when we were very young kids in grade school we’d give and get valentines from pretty much everyone in our school classes.

Those were days of pink and white and red, of chocolate and construction paper hearts adorned with lace trimming.

Fluttering kid hearts, sweaty palms and Brylcreemed hair. Hairbows, buckled shoes and pink and lavender pencils covered in hearts. It’s all so gooshy and sweet.

My favorite thing on Valentine’s Day are the Necco candy hearts with the little sayings on them. I still like to enjoy at least one package of those guilty pleasures every February.

Though, like everything else, they’ve been updated with the times, the basic shape, size, flavors and sentiments have been around for more than 100 years.

I’m less inclined to feel the love and relevance of new sayings on the candies like “Tweet Me” and “Text Me,” preferring instead the silly staples like “Puppy Love,” “Love Bug,” “Let’s Kiss” and “Say Yes.”

I’m surprised there hasn’t been an alternative set of similar candies produced with less supportive messages like, “No Way,” “Just Don’t” or “Sit Back Down.” Those would be fun too.

Staring into winter’s icy crystal ball, no matter the individual nature of each cold season — el nino or otherwise — mid February is getting kind of late in the winter for the list of things I’d hoped to complete or enjoy over the season.

I’ve got books stacked up in my study, television and movies to binge watch, things to write, but I can do that any time of year.

What I really need to do is get out to snowshoe, get some more winter waterfall photos, check out the beautiful diamond jewelry of the shoreline ice along the big lake and enjoy some soup from a thermos out in the freezing cold.

I also want to have a few more winter campfires and spend at least a couple of nights out there in some snowbound cabin somewhere. I’d also like to get out on the hard water to fish at least a couple of times.

Maybe even some skiing and an afternoon snowmobile ride.

I think the recent sunshine and the longer days have sent a surge of warm blood into my veins, making me itch to get outside while the getting is still there to get.

It’s funny, when I think about it long enough, the little things that can bring you down or up — kind of like a yo-yo on a string. It’s not always fun, but I think it’s preferable to always being in a constant state — even a state of sunshine, like California.

I need the cold and the rain as much as the sun and the heat, the chill of the autumn and the blackness of December. The exhilaration of the changing seasons keeps me feeling alive.

In the tree near me, a chickadee sits looking at me.

I look back.

Inside, I feel a smile.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.