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A Yankee Notebook

January 26, 2015


MONTPELIER – I’m writing this by reflected sunlight through north-facing windows. The thermometer has climbed slowly up to eight degrees above zero, and a high, thin haze has begun to dim the sun just a bit. A south wind ruffles the tops of the white pines. It’s a weather-breeder. You don’t have to have lived here for too many years to know that something is on the way, possibly something large and important.

Just in case we’re not sure just how important, we have but to switch on the television to learn that a storm of epic proportions is headed up the coast toward New England – life-threatening, unprecedented in history, and deadly, in the words of the overexcited weather broadcasters and news anchors. The computer-generated projections show the snowfall only sideswiping central Vermont, thankfully; but we are nevertheless urged to join our less fortunate neighbors in their anxiety and dread. A cousin in Connecticut posts that he’s just secured fifty gallons of gasoline for his generator; a friend is storing 5-gallon jugs of water. Another cousin who’s been skiing in Utah is racing the storm east by air to Albany, and then by car north to Killington. I’m delighted to be not riding with him. A big-city road crew has stockpiled 35,000 tons of salt, and schools all over New England have already announced their closings.

It’s much quieter up here in the bushes. The sun, weak as it is, floods the glass-front living room with free heat, reminding me of an architect friend’s dismissive description of traditional New England houses as “boxes with little holes punched in them.” I’ve just put four chunks of wood on the fire in the cellar boiler: two of white ash for enthusiasm, and on top of them two of red oak for staying power. With an eye to meteorological midwinter next Monday, Candlemas Day, and mindful of the ancient injunction to have half my wood left at that point, I’ve been keeping track of consumption. I’ll admit to cheating a little by letting the furnace go out on warm days (temperature above twenty degrees), and I’m pretty sure I’m going to hit the traditional way point on the nose.

The garage doors face east for the early heat in wintertime; they’re about to be in the shade as the sun westers toward the spruces behind it. Out back of the house, a jungle of more spruces, hemlocks, and white pines hides the old abandoned beaver dams beyond it, where the deer bed down during the nights. To the casual visitor or the UPS guy, the woods no doubt seem almost lifeless. But we’ve lived here a few years now, and can see that on this calm day before a storm, there’s a lot more than usual going on out there.

The chickadees, who’ve deserted us in recent weeks, apparently because they don’t care for the current mixture of seeds in the feeder, have decided it may be edible, after all; any port in a storm, I suppose. They’re swarming the feeder and the suet cages, like frantic shoppers in supermarkets stripping the shelves of milk and bottled water. They flit away only when a big jay swoops in like a JetBlue 737. The mourning doves, who don’t care for hanging sideways to dine, skitter around on the porch floor beneath, cleaning up whatever seeds the acrobats drop there.

A few minutes ago something white flashed at the edge of my vision. Naturally, I got up to look, through the one window without a screen, where I shoot photos. It was a big white-tailed doe standing up on her hind legs to pull down high-hanging hemlock boughs. She was having a tough time holding the boughs down while nipping off fronds of greenery, but managed somehow. I didn’t offer to help; I'm sure she’d have misinterpreted my intentions. As I watched her for a few minutes, some large brown spots in the woods around her began to move. The deer are browsing two hours earlier today than usual, in broad daylight. How do they know?

Beats me. I guess that if your life depends entirely upon reading the clues around you in your environment, you get pretty sensitive to intimations of change or danger. Old-timers did it by reading the signs in the wind and the sky; nowadays we do it by turning on the television, where the hyped-up adjectives of excited weather forecasters prepare us for Armageddon whenever a couple of feet of snow or high winds are in the offing. It’s hard to tell whose method comes closer to predicting accurately what’s really going to happen.

When we walked to school once upon a time, we never had a snow day – though we did have an occasional measles, whooping cough, or chickenpox break. The streets were never cleared as well as they are today – how long has it been since you’ve heard the unmistakable chink of tire chains? – but folks managed to get around if they had to. My father once shoveled and plowed his way for several hours through a midnight blizzard on old Route 20 in Cherry Valley, New York, with just a short-handled shovel and a set of chains. It was rarely that you got to put on chains in the comfort of a garage; it was usually in the dark, snow, and cold, with a flashlight in your teeth. The hook on the back side of the tire, invisible under the fender, was nearly impossible to latch with cold fingers. Smart guys kept a piece of corrugated cardboard or a bit of carpet in the trunk to kneel on in slushy snow. It’s hard to miss those simpler days.

The more complicated our systems become, the more vulnerable they are to inclement conditions. I can’t help but think of the brachiopods, the bivalves that have been with us ever since Paleozoic times. It’s impossible not to notice in the fossil record that as any species became more decorated and specialized, it also became more likely to disappear with changes in its environment. So I’m glad we’re going to experience this “potentially historic storm” up here in the bushes with the deer and the chickadees. I think also I’ll e-mail this script before the power goes out.

Photo by Willem lange