A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1853
January 23, 2017

CALL THIS A WINTER?

MONTPELIER – Ever since calculating the cost of George W. Bush’s bravado – Remember “Bring it on!”? – I’ve tried to avoid that sort of fist-waving. But looking out the window of my office this morning, I was sorely tempted. Here it is nearly the end of January, and the month has been an almost uninterrupted January Thaw. Used to be, you could just about set your calendar by it, and could make money betting on its appearance during the third week of the month.

No more. Now I’m pretty sure you can make money betting there’ll be more days in January above freezing than below. As William Bendix’s character Chester A. Riley used to say, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” I look out the window at where high banks pushed up by the driveway plow guy used to be decorated with a dozen or so turkeys jockeying for the corn I spread for them daily. Now the banks are pretty much depleted, and the crows have come and eaten up the corn, which is sort of a symbol of the changes. Beyond the yard, the remains of last year’s log job, still unsorted, rear up above the puny snow cover like the remains of a ghastly World War I battlefield. Where, oh where, are the snows of yesteryear?

An experienced old-timer would just say, “Watch out what you wish for. There’ll be some bad weather and snow coming along any time now.” And he’d be right: The weather chart on my computer screen has been tracking a fairly fierce front that’s been laying waste to parts of the deep South and is spreading our way. Weatherman Tom Messner predicts it’ll be arriving here about midnight tonight, mixing with some of our old friend, cold air from Canada, and by morning spreading a sheet of ice upon our roads. He adds the extraneous warning about driving too fast on ice – recalling the government mandate that wood stoves carry the notice, “Caution! May be hot when in operation.”

I read yesterday that 2016 was the hottest year measured since temperature records have been kept. In this new day of alternate facts, that has to be taken with a grain of salt and its source checked as many ways as possible. If true, it’s one of those features of current life that mainly can be celebrated or deplored, but about which little or nothing can be done as long as our Congress is tied up in its Gordian knot of conflicting realities, principles, and obligations.

Where once we waited with bated breath to see how many feet of snow the onrushing weather monsters would dump on us, we now shrink at the common prediction of “mixed precipitation.” My dooryard between the back porch and the barn, instead of sleeping firmly under several layers of hard-packed snow (the old hymn line, “Earth lay like a stone,” springs to mind), this year sports four layers of wet brown sand, spread at various times to make it possible for the old man who lives here to get out to his car, and then, having completed the perilous crossing, to be able to descend the driveway without sliding, willy-nilly, into the road out front. (That expression just triggered another great allusion, Robert Frost’s “Brown’s Descent, or the Willy-Nilly Slide).

The woodpile, too, betrays the change. This place is pretty tight, so I generally don’t start the wood furnace – an auxiliary to the oil-fired one – until the temperature drops below twenty. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I find cold to be cheap, and I like it. I keep the thermostat in the low sixties, and the bedroom end at forty, just enough (I hope) to keep the overhead sprinklers from freezing). Ten years ago, we burned two cords a winter; now, to achieve the same effect takes about half a cord.

Shirts in the coat closet tell the same story: The most-used sit nearest the door. The entire range runs from Carhartt denims in front to a North Face down in the back. The down’s been used once this winter, and peeks out hopefully from behind the denims, flannels, and wool. The coats on the other side haven’t even been touched yet. This is hardly a scientific study – I could be losing the ability to feel temperature changes – but it works for me.

Meanwhile, the radio reports that some of our fellow creatures out in the bushes, the moose, are struggling to survive in the warming temperatures. Not only are they denizens of cold climates – we’ve seen them, on our canoe trips, in the same scene as the Arctic Ocean – but they’re vulnerable to the almost-Biblical scourge of the winter tick, which has been moving north with the changing climate, along with other pestilential critters, like the wood and deer ticks, chiggers, and Aedes mosquitoes. So far, the only strategy that seems to help is thinning the moose herd and reducing its concentration.  Somebody, someday, will come up with a flea-and-tick collar for the moose, or maybe a dart-administered chemical that makes their blood taste bad to parasites; but until Congressmen begin finding ticks in their hotel rooms and trousers, there most likely won’t be enough money for even the research, let alone the deployment.

Many of our friends, retired with a sufficiency, go south for the winter to get away from what’s left of it. I heard from one couple yesterday who’d spent most of the night next to a closet in the center of their Florida retreat, listening to the emergency radio band and the scream of the wind rocking their doublewide on its foundations. All is well there today, and the electricity’s back on, while the storm sweeps north to peter out over the chilly hills of New England.

It’s dark outside. The indoor/outdoor thermometer says 65 here in the office, 31 on the porch. I’ve got a bayberry candle going; smells like a spa in here. I’d take the candle into the bath, fill Mother’s whirlpool tub, and luxuriate in that. But then I’d have to get out in that icy bathroom. And the expense of all that hot water? Forget it. I’ll take the puny winter. Bring it on!

Photo by Willem lange