A Win­ter's Tale

It looks like pure hell out there. The iso­bars on last night's weather re­port were ver­ti­cal, a bub­ble of pure Antarc­tic air blast­ing its way up to the South Is­land.

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH - Peter Ryan

“Rug up, New Zealand!” chirps the weath­er­man, and it's good ad­vice. No pleas­ant lit­tle snow­fall last night but the real deal. The land­scape is stripped bare to its very bones by now: leaf­less, sere and slum­ber­ing, time look­ing nei­ther for­ward nor back­ward. For all that, I con­sider scout­ing up a fish; some of the water around here is still open. Not a bad time for a wet fly, though even trout can be stunned by weather. Even­tu­ally I make the call to take the dog and an old side-by-side down to the river, hop­ing the snow might give us the drop on a ring­neck. Here, close to a town, pheas­ants are well ed­u­cated and more than a lit­tle crafty.

It isn't to be. Af­ter three hours we've seen just one bird, pointed deep un­der a wild­ing oak. By mid-win­ter, the acorns have been sea­soned and seem more palat­able to game birds, or maybe they just get hun­gry enough to ig­nore the tan­nin. Ei­ther way, the long sil­hou­ette lifts with a dis­tinc­tive soft flut­ter of wings and the gun comes up nicely, but with no splut­ter­ing kok-kok-kok, all hope fades. A fe­male, so off lim­its. My hands are numb with cold, and even break­ing the gun is a dull ache. The hen ac­cel­er­ates, catches the wind and sets her wings for parts un­known. All easy straight­aways, I find, are hens. The walk home is a long one as a soft

rain be­gins to fall. Mov­ing through broom, gorse and long grass, I bump a sapling and am show­ered with freez­ing water. A fa­mil­iar flut­ing call breaks the si­lence and far over­head a hand­ful of Canada geese ap­pear; southerly, lonely sil­hou­ettes beat­ing their way against an im­mense sky of brood­ing cloud. No shortage of fresh air out here, that's for sure.

Cold and wet, the dog never ceases his con­stant prob­ing through the black­berry canes, a few still with tat­tered pur­ple leaves. Oc­ca­sion­ally he'll lift his head, scout con­fus­edly for me, then re­sume his beat with a wag­ging tail. That's one of the great things about dogs — their zest for life turns even the harsh­est work into a great mo­ment. How­ever, there isn't much time left on this, the short­est day of the year, and we make ground quickly into the wind.

Then home at last, empty handed. It hap­pens some­times. Time to kick the Red Bands off and open­ing the door is like en­ter­ing an­other world. Blue gum pop­ping away in the wood burner, now a bed of deep coals, the wood split back in the blaz­ing days of sum­mer when it seemed such an un­nec­es­sary thing to do. An hour later, the old dog is sleep­ing nose to tail, con­tent and snor­ing. His soft ears are full of black­berry rips, and here and there, a few thorn tips will need to come out. Not right now though, he's worn down but warm and wants a sleep. Fair enough.

There's a casse­role slowly tick­ing away on the stove, a bub­ble or two here and there, veni­son just right for the long slow treat­ment. Some spuds from the gar­den too, yel­low agrias, for a creamy gar­lic mash. Might even melt a lit­tle cheese into that. Needs a red wine, rich and deep, or a malty ale from that lit­tle brew­ery down the road. Funny lot, brew­ers. Didn't seem to be mak­ing a lot of money, but a happy bunch.

There's even a smoky, peat-scented Scotch on the side­board. A nip will be just the thing later, when the kids have gone to sleep. Turn the lights down low and bank the fire, time to savour it prop­erly while rain drums away on the tin roof. All good.

No, there's noth­ing wrong with win­ter, if you have it in you to love the unloved.

This night will be the long­est of the year, and the cold­est is yet to come, but as the days im­per­cep­ti­bly lengthen, roots will be­gin to stir and buds will swell. It seems so very far away, but a mi­nor miracle is build­ing as surely as the ris­ing of the sun.

The year has turned upon its hinge. Sum­mer is com­ing.

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