A handful of swans eat like pigs across wet fields under clouds dragging hills and border trees. These big white transients tread stubble off Route 9, south of Nooksack Valley High School in the northwest corner of Washington State, just a couple of miles below the Canadian border. I drive off onto the shoulder to watch as the birds move in hungry disarray. One swan pauses in his feeding and lifts his head to scan the landscape as others shovel down sodden furrows. Again and again, they tip their heads and black bills back for ease in swallowing. As they trudge along, they splatter themselves and each other with mud. Their yellow legs and immaculate breasts are splashed with earth.
Between the San Juan Islands and the North Cascades, winter moves through with two distinct faces. The broader, more common face blows wet and mild off the Pacific as south winds haul rain clouds up the coast. Days around the solstice are short and dim. Light edges in from rainy nights and creeps shrouded through alleys of day until dissolving away into the next starless night.
The narrower face is clear and arctic. Bitter winds drive down off the North, push across the Canadian prairies, then funnel through the Fraser Valley to spill over farmland north and east of Bellingham. Air is brittle. Mornings break free of dark and gather into brilliant afternoons that hold their own against angular cuts of shadow as night looms back over sharp snow peaks—Baker, Shuksan, and the Twin Sisters—immoveable in the east.
Today marks the return of one of the wet, mild spells. The swans graze a field that just last week lay under acres of snow as record drifts closed roads all across Whatcom County. Snow fell so hard that drivers, even in mid-afternoon, lost their way. Struggling into whiteout, many slid off the blacktop into ditches or veered out onto fields until wheels no longer gained traction and spun helplessly. Working round the clock, plows and tow trucks cleared away vehicles to open passage for ambulances and for dairy tankers on their rounds to hundreds of far flung herds.
When the snow passed, skies cleared for three days, and temperatures, on biting wind, dropped near zero.
Now, however, winds have shifted back from the south. Rain clouds crowd in, and ice-crusted ruins of only the largest drifts remain. Grass shows through in yards. Creeks, gullies, and ditches brim full with run-off. At a far corner of this field of swans, one snowdrift still climbs a farmhouse porch and crests like a wave just shy of the front door. The place looks abandoned. A single string of Christmas lights burns along the roofline.
Christmas isn’t midwinter. Midwinter lives like a hump on the back of solstice long after artificial lights of holidays. In Northwest Washington, midwinter brings weeks of low skies when drizzle holds the dark close to Earth while up over blankets of cloud, the sun, blocked from ground view, reaches longer into day with each turn of the globe.
These swans, their huge bodies and powerful necks, work relentlessly to fill winter’s hunger. Together they form a kind of broken crown scattered white across the gray-brown field where on a mild afternoon back in October, I drove past as loud, dusty machines chopped corn stalks for silage. Carried in on today’s currents up the valley, raindrops drum in sheets against my car’s roof and windshield. Thick runnels and stationary drops caught on the curved glass join in a congress of lenses through which I watch the swans finish, pause, lift their heads, and rise together in sudden flight.
As they leave the field, they climb in one long curve through walls of rain. Diminishing white against gray, they look like little crests of waves combing a March lake. Their ponderous bodies transform into graceful flight. For a short time, the beat of their wings shows boldly against foothills dark with Douglas fir, but then, through some trick of light between ridges and clouds, the huge birds disappear all at once right before my eyes. I know they’re out there, and yet, leaning against the steering wheel of my parked car, I stare baffled into the place in the sky where I just saw them, big as life, vanish.
Driving away south on Route 9 into the town of Nooksack, I pass a lighted marquee in front of the Assembly of God church. The sign’s light on the shoulder of the road burns brighter than today’s sky. The church’s clean lines and modern angles stand out on the otherwise haphazard edge of town. An open spire rises with four white struts that converge under a small white cross. Greeting traffic north and south, the marquee silently proclaims in red plastic letters:
Every Day Brings You
One Step Closer To
It looks as if the Assembly of God has produced an epic film, years in the making. Will there be a grand opening, a gala, right here in Whatcom County to brighten these bleak days inside the hump of midwinter? What would it be like if this small church on Route 9 at the base of Sumas Mountain, east of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, really is the way into forever?
Beyond the Assembly of God, I pass the flat-roofed post office across from the city park with its idle swings and empty picnic gazebo. The town’s largest building, a high block structure, stands boarded up with a cornice that reads, The Nooksack Building, 1913. Around this building, older homes spread out with bare shade trees and well-kept yards. In their midst, a turquoise autobody shop lights up before sunrise each weekday and stays lit long into winter twilight. Just down from the body shop is the popular diner with its ten-foot white rooster eyeing customers over hoods of parked pick-ups. Drab and dingy, the town still seems to be hunkered down, reeling from last week’s blizzard and quick deep freeze.
A dogleg in Route 9 forms the main intersection in town and jogs south between two gas stations, each with a quickie mart and deli. Both are fixtures on the rural landscape. Each place draws its own loyal crowd. Gossip, basketball scores, and county politics pass freely among commuters, farm workers, Nooksack Indians, and school kids waiting in line to pay for gas, deep-fried chicken, burritos, beer, and Pepsi. How many have read the sign up the road in front of the Assembly of God?
Would you gather at that church just before the opening of FOREVER? Would you get an invitation, or need a ticket? Could anyone go? There might be a cheerful man standing inside the doors checking his watch for the right time to unhook the velvet rope. Would it be like waiting for a movie as you settled into your seat inside? While your eyes adjusted to the dark, would you realize that this much-heralded FOREVER is really a sequel to the other one before you were born? Would you see that you’ve been on an island, and now you’re ready to leave, flying away like a swan?
Maybe everybody would go at once, or maybe some would wait their turns in the parking lot outside the church. Would the ones going first, lifting on those huge wings, look with sympathy down on others? Would any gloat? If you rose first, how long would you search for familiar faces below as they strained to pick out yours up in the light and clouds?
When you could no longer distinguish faces on the ground, you’d surely turn your gaze west to the islands and the Pacific, then east across foothills directly into crags and ice cornices of the North Cascades. Beyond the mountains, you’d see the Trans-Canada Highway through the Rockies into Alberta, or over Eastern Washington along I-90 all the way to Montana. Would you leave Earth altogether?
What in the world is forever anyway? Is there really a particular door with a sill to cross? If so, what’s all this around us now? Do we break through a membrane into forever like a caul birth?
The word FOREVER, all caps in red plastic on the marquee in front of the Assembly of God, is the object of a preposition: One Step Closer to FOREVER, and so a noun—a person, place, thing, or idea. I try to picture it. Do we move forward, step by discrete step, until we take one final step into that noun forever, just as those swans vanished in the sky right in front of me? Or do all of our individual steps, the great common tread of them, flow together, fluid like the course of a river with all its single drops gathered along tributaries and finally washing through a mouth at the end of space and time, out into some boundless ocean? Or is there really a place like Hades across a river with a greedy ferryman? Does everything—every single moment of being, gesture, object, and act—move finally as one into an infinite inventory like an endless storeroom of costumes on hangers and props on shelves: Roger Williams, out in the snow, exiled from Providence; Marilyn Monroe catching her billowing skirt in The Seven Year Itch; Pilate’s final question to the mob; my wedding day south of Chicago in 1968; Emily Dickinson’s daguerreotype; War Bonnet’s team of canoe pullers; my father loading bombs on B-17s; Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch; the constant streams of war-torn homeless; or John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields where he played in the garden and listened to the Salvation Army band, then wrote his own song, the little boy grown to a man, and then the other man who shot him outside the gabled Dakota filled with all its stars. All of this swirling around somewhere, all of it forever.
North America ends just a few miles west of here. There is an actual sill that I know and have walked, a shore along a restless ocean into which I can step. I can point to it on maps and see it in photographs from space. I like to stand there, looking out across mirrorings of its last light as night creeps up behind my back. I like the way arms of earth reach out in spits and coves to take on the tides, both ebb and flow. Ocean’s syllables tumble out of the lap of waves and the shrieks of shore birds, especially those guttural cormorants, the surface skimmers and steep divers, sharp beaked and black. They dip and wheel to pliant waves whose mirroring swill shatters and spills down cave mouths, sucking in the air of day. Shakespeare figures time as cormorant devouring time. Out on the sill of the continent, I see those shadowy birds perched on rocks, wings held out dripping, beaks gaping wide as if they are about to devour time, while they themselves are taken in by night.
As the sun drops away behind the horizon’s curve, islands pierce a last iris foil aflame through inlets. Near islands glow ember-red. They stand long out of shadow as rising tide fills the foreground. I reach wrist deep in pools where my fingers blossom ghostly white and my hand looks apart, angled oddly away from my arm. Chill draws to bone. Mussels on inner walls around my fingers take the surge with brittle mouths. Barnacle tongues flare like tiny brown ferns out in swells as waves spill through rooms of boulders where sea stars, coarse and tough, clutching and purple, light the last broken steps away from all I can say I know.
But if I were to take flight like those swans up the road from the Assembly of God and vanish into forever, and it really is forever, I wonder if once in a while I might find my way back to these fields under these same skies. Maybe I could fly back inland, down out of clouds across the face of the North Cascades and land here in Whatcom County in the heart of winter. I wouldn’t mind coming back again as a swan to tread with others down wet furrows, to find tender leaves and stalks, to pluck scattered kernels from chill earth. I’d like to swoop long circles down through wind and rain and become visible again, to rest for a short time as if out of forever, and eat like a pig.