Winter is coming and I’m not ready for it

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

Winter is coming and I’m not ready for it. I don’t know how the summer went so fast, but I’ve got a huge pile of firewood to cut and I have some trees to clear behind the house to make room for my old trucks. My dad collected old trucks and my Finnish grandfather always had old trucks behind the barn. My favorite uncle Punkin always had at least one old truck.

The weather has been steady rain as I try to work outside and it limits what I can do. I rarely have time after work and our weekends have been full. Darkness comes earlier every day. Now any time I can get is spent in a blind panic trying to get all the wood cut and trees cleared. I have several huge brush piles along the edge of the clearing I’ve been making and I try to keep them in as small a space as possible. I have a Bobcat skidsteer that I use to dig out stumps and rocks, but much of the work still needs to be done by hand. The Bobcat has been getting stuck in the mud constantly.

I take down the bigger trees by using chains to pull them in the direction I want them to go and I hook a 4 ton winch to the chains. Then I start digging around the base of the tree with the Bobcat and I cut through the roots and the rocks until the tree goes over. As the tree falls, it pulls the stump with it. My grandfather cleared land with a team of horses and I think I can clear more land in a day than his family could in a week.

This is solitary work and between running the chainsaw and the Bobcat, it’s just me and the outdoors as I work. I cut the trees into 16 inch lengths for our woodstove and I stack them out of the way until I can move them to the woodpile. I stacked wood for my grandmother and for one of her friends whose husband was dying from Parkinson’s disease when I was 12 years old.

I take very few breaks when I work and I took off my hearing protectors and sat by the brush pile for a few minutes. I heard a squeaking sound and I followed it. It was a star-nosed mole in the area that I’d cleared and he was working his way to the edge of the forest. I remembered when I was about 10 years old and there was a star-nosed mole running across the top of the snow. My mother was constantly reading and all of us were readers. Our entire family ran out of the house and we followed the mole as he was working his way across the rough snow. I remembered this as a good day toward the end of a hard winter in the year we ran out of firewood. My brothers and I had go into the woods after school to look for trees that were dry so we could cut them up and bring them into the house.

I went back and two chickadees flew into a tree just next to the brush pile and they were chirping excitedly. My mother used to tie sections of hay bales to trees as places for the chickadees to shelter in the coldest winters and she always fed chickadees.

I feed chickadees and I talk to them in Ojibwe when I feed them and I remind them my mother fed their mothers. Last winter I was going to burn a brush pile and I went out in the evening after dark to start the fire. I had a flashlight and I shined it into the brush pile and deep inside I saw a chickadee.

Then another. And another. I kept shining the light and I realized the entire brush pile was full of chickadees sheltering from the cold. I promised the chickadees next to the brush pile I was building that I would build it carefully and change the direction of it so the wind wouldn’t fill it full of snow. They flew away and didn’t come back. They just wanted to make sure I remembered and now they had more important things to do.

I looked up and an eagle slowly drifted right above me and continued north.

The brightest colors of fall were gone, the reds and oranges of the maple trees had passed. Only the poplar trees still had leaves and these are not the colors people travel to see. These are small, round and singularly drab yellow leaves. These are common leaves and no one looks to them for beauty.

As I was watching the eagle drift slowly by, the leaves caught my attention. They were fluttering and I could hear them rattling against each other. In the summer these leaves are bright green and they shimmer as the wind moves them. They were still moving like that, but now they were dry and stiff in their movements. There was a break in the clouds and the dry yellow leaves clattered against each other under the backdrop of the cold, bright blue sky.

I was reminded of my Ojibwe grandfather. He moved in with my mother after my grandmother died of cirrhosis and that was the same time I decided to quit the best job I ever had as a paramedic and a professional firefighter and go to medical school. I could no longer make the payments on my mother’s house and my grandfather moving in solved that problem. Every day he would walk to the mailbox to see if the land settlement check he was promised was in the mail. He made that walk every day for years and his plan was to pay off his car, pay off my mother’s house and maybe get her a better car.

When the check finally showed up, it was for five dollars and sixty-one cents. I really think that was the day my grandfather started to die. His walk was slower and he no longer had a reason to walk to the mailbox. He continued to dwindle and was finally put into a nursing home. I would visit him on weekends when I was in medical school and he told me stories of when he was younger. He told me when he was 16, his father died in the Agwajiing Tuberculosis Sanitarium. He said his father came to him that night dressed in a light blue shirt and light blue pants and stood at the foot of his bed and asked him to come with him.

“I was afraid and I didn’t talk to him. I just shook my head, no.
My younger brother died that night.”

The poplar leaves reminded me of this. As a physician, I have opportunities my mother and my grandparents never had. I sometimes think of myself as one of the brighter colored leaves.

But I’m not. I collect old trucks because my father did and because my uncle did and because my grandfather did. The chickadees came to me because my mother took care of their ancestors and they wanted me to keep that promise to them.

I will. I promise.
Do the leaves remember those from last year?
In the heat of summer, the bright green shimmers of forever.
Then the fall.
The bitter cold.
They show their true colors, these elders.
They remind us of the passage into the next life.
The commonest of them persist
And they speak to me.
They tell me I am one of them.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and he is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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