The yellow dog and I headed for the backyard shortly after sunrise on a recent morning. I could tell by the creak of the back door that it was a brittle morning.
Yep. Five below zero.
Theoretically, a dog owner could just let the dog out the door every morning, and she would do what needs to be done. But even in my sleepy awakening state, I always throw on a coat and go out with her.
I stand in the middle of the yard and take stock of the new day. I check the stars and maybe the moon, if one is still up. I note the feel of the air, the direction of the wind. I look for the doe and her yearlings rousted from their beds beneath the pines.
It’s a good time to be out, before the world comes fully awake. Before the school buses grind up the hill to collect their little mushrooms waiting at the curb. Before the traffic starts hissing along the main arteries.
Something about this soft transition from night into day always makes me feel like I’m fortunate to be up and about, like I’m privileged to be riding this planet through the heavens. I can’t remember if I felt this way when I was young. Maybe I did but just couldn’t name it. Now, seven decades into my temporary stint on Earth, I know where I want to be at daybreak.
The cold nips my face. Five degrees below zero isn’t serious cold, but it gets your attention.
To put this brisk morning in perspective, I check my phone to sample the weather elsewhere. Yellowknife, on Great Slave Lake Northwest Territories: 22 degrees below zero. I have friends on the east arm of Great Slave Lake. They know cold. Their sled dogs will be waking now, rattling their chains, eager for their morning gruel.
I check Marco Island, Florida, where other friends winter: 69 degrees. I can almost see a brown pelican perched atop one of their dock posts, waiting to glide down and pluck an anchovy from the channel.
For me, this quiet interlude between sleep and dawn — in any weather — inspires a sense of humility and gratitude. It’s not quite prayer, I suppose, but I can fully appreciate the privilege of having been granted this time on Earth. I gaze up through the arms of the old apple tree at the fading constellations and think, you are one fortunate creature.
I suspect I am not alone in this sense of appreciation, though few of us try to articulate it. Perhaps you feel much the same way watching a heron floating along the shoreline, or sitting in a deer stand, or watching shorebirds skittering along the beach at Park Point. A moonrise over Lake Superior would do it, too.
When I was a young boy, staying at my grandparents’ farm on summer vacations, I would often awaken to see my grandfather sitting on a hardback chair by his bedroom window. He would just be looking out over his land.
I always wondered what he was looking for, what he was thinking about as he tapped the ashes from a cigarette. He was an implement dealer. I thought maybe he was just trying to figure out how to sell more tractors. But now I wonder if maybe he wasn’t just thinking the same things I think about in my backyard most mornings.
It’s hard to say.
The yellow dog, mission accomplished, makes a pass beneath the apple tree, hoping — always hoping — to find one last fallen apple in the snow. Her search is short: She knows a bowl of fresh kibble awaits in the house. She’ll be drooling by the time we get inside.
“C’mon, girl,” I say.
We turn and head for the back door.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.