Miscellany / Seasons / The Land / Thoreauvian Pursuits

Cold Spell

by Todd R. Nelson
EVEN THE DOGS refuse to go outside. Our big black retriever, Gus, will at least point his nose into the wind from the safety of the back porch and give a sniff, but the little brown dog, Ivy, just turns tail and trots back to the sofa by the wood stove. Today it is cold enough to require new language for cold. Television weather forecasters are scrambling for fresh metaphors because the old figures of speech are starting to feel almost luke warm. We are in a metaphor inversion: it is burning cold. The harbor is smoking. It will be a three-dog night, and I am one dog short.

It is also time to complain about the roads, now that frost is heaving the tarmac at the usual culverts, with a few new spots thrown in for good, bone-jarring measure. The ride to work is a thirty mile endurance test of front-end jouncing and white knuckled obstacle alerts. It’s worst being a passenger. “Watch out!” I cry to my teenage daughter as she navigates the Western County road to school. “Careful!” We brace our butts and catch our breath for another hard jolt to the undercarriage from this minefield.

Stones are heaving off their walls too, even as their underground cousins are migrating to the surface for reunions at the verge of the fields that still get plowed. We are accustomed to think of stone walls as boundary markers, or simple, quaint vestiges of cleared land. The truth is they are artifacts of cold. Once early farmers uprooted the insulating trees with their oxen, and the frost penetrated to new depths, boulders became unbound. They inch upward still in any field that is furrowed by a spring plowing. I’ll have a new crop awaiting my tiller.

For all its hardships, I nonetheless love the tactile intensity of this arctic spell. The fir trees crackle like rifle shots, the path to the car is crunchy under foot, and puffs of powdery snow explode off the hemlock boughs gusted by rogue winds. Sound travels farther. The Trinitarian bells in town now reach us, on the hour, miles away in the woods off neck. I’ll stand out front by the chopping block and suck in hard just to feel my nostrils clinch and the air singe my cheeks. Birch logs cleave like scored granite under the maul—it’s good splittin’ weather, and I’m playing catch up with the wood box. The moon will be full tonight, and cedar tree shadows will do an eerie, languorous tango on the alabaster field at midnight.  Two o’clock in the morning among the white pines on the knoll, deeper in the woods, will feel like a Taj Mahal of cold, white silence. I will imagine it from my bed, with a brown dog warming my feet.

It wasn’t too long ago that cold was colder, and lasted longer. There are men and women living on this peninsula who remember upper Penobscot Bay frozing over solid, so you could drive your model T on ice from Castine to Belfast—seven miles versus more than a hundred by land, in the days prior to the Waldo County bridge. Now that must have been truly, deeply cold. This week’s slushy ice floe in Smith Cove, across from Eaton’s boatyard—even Kenny Eaton couldn’t remember ever having seen that in a long while—pales by comparison. And the fact that the bay hasn’t frozen in a great-grandfather’s while is a bit troubling, if it is a portent of global warming. To think that such drastic climatic change could have occurred within living memory!

Cold used to be a business, here in Castine. Don Colson, the veteran local newscaster, remembers his father cutting block ice out of the town reservoirs and sliding them down Main Street to the dockside ice house for summertime cooling. That puts us within living memory of the last vestiges of primal refrigeration—more comforting, somehow. In the age of sail, this area exported such pond ice to the Caribbean, China, and India. I like to imagine Castine ice making a rajah’s sherbet, or introducing the very concept of cold to the tropics. Cold was precious, and we were blessed with an abundant, self-renewing supply.

We’ve gotten soft. Aside from the loss of an ice livelihood, we’ve lost the character benefits of our forebears’ struggle against the elements. We don’t have to break the ice on the trough with an ax in order to water to the horses, to haul the lumber, to build the ship, to carry the ice to Jamaica. We don’t have to load the kindling box to have bread in the morning. I will, however, need to drag a few more trees out of the woods tomorrow and replenish that log pile on the porch—to take the edge off the oil bill.

One doesn’t automatically think of winter as a harvest season, but this cold spell makes a certain kind of harvest possible: lumber. I’ve waited months for the ground to freeze this hard before driving my tractor into the woods to skid trees out to the field where I can cut and split them for firewood. Sure my tires will make tracks in the snow, but by spring there will be little trace of a mechanized incursion. “In winter in the woods against the trees I go,” says Robert Frost. The depth of this frost in the ground allows me to tread lightly as I go. My little diesel will sound warm and comforting as it murmurs across the meadow.  If the tractor will even start in this cold.

As hard and lifeless as it seems on the frozen surface, I know that not too many inches under ground warm blooded things are moving. There is a layer of persistent activity down there in the dark soil. From nests deep below my log piles, or among the hackmatack stumps and roots, moles and mice tunnel between seed stashes. We see their tracks skittering across the leach field—the unwary being potential prey to hawks, coyotes, and Lulu, our cat. One line of tiny footprints ends in abrupt horror, straddled by an impression of extended wings in the snow, what must have been the silent attack of a Barred owl.

It helps to gaze toward the moment ahead of us, perhaps in late February, when we will have intimations that we are pivoting. The junipers may still be shagged with ice. Fishing shacks will still colonize the lakes, and no one will yet have dared to remove their studded snow tires. However, you can sense a shift of weight. It’s like the leaden keel of a sailboat, unseen below the waterline, counterbalancing a slow tack to port. Or like a plumb bob swinging across an invisible latitude; like the switch from peddling hard against a hill’s inertia to coasting down its backside; like crossing the line on the thermometer from ice back to water.

One year, something Gene said to me at the grocery store defined it: “A day like this gives you hope.” As he bagged my milk and potato chips at the checkout counter Sunday morning, Gene felt inspired by the sunny late winter vibe. Skip “Paper or plastic.” Cut to the chase: the metaphysics of meteorology.

Newton’s laws make spring a sure thing, I thought. I know only a smidgeon about the laws of Sir Isaac’s physics, save a vague sense that they predict bodies in motion staying, reliably, in motion—a universal constant that orders such local changes as vernal pools, the first robin, and a day’s hard earned climatic poetry. You can almost relax a little, shrug and rebound from a cold winter hunch, like birches after an ice storm. We will lighten, and lift. There are twenty more minutes of daylight this week. The celestial bodies really are in motion. Orion’s days are numbered. Summer constellations await, eager to return, just over the southern horizon. Winter will relax its talons after all, dropping us to the meadow. We will find ourselves in clover, gamboling down March hill to summer.

But first, there will be more cold.

The cold has work to do. My lupine seeds, carefully primed by an overnight soak before I sowed them back in October, are being charged to bloom by this good hard freeze. Skunks are mating. The does browsing our cedar slash are slow with spring fawns, and their hind legs drag in the deep drifts. Bears are giving birth in their sleep…and dreaming of blueberries. And somewhere in Brazil or Argentina, our songbirds have reached the antipode of their migration and will soon turn northward along the corridor of gradual thawing. We must endure mudtime. Seed catalogs will arrive in the mail, tantalizing torpid gardeners with beefy tomatoes, strawberries, or monster pumpkins. Yes, we must admit, it’s good and cold—auguring lilacs and daffodils, and lighting the fuse for purple blooms in June. Done with cold.

But cold is not done with us, just yet.

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA. He used to live in Castine, Maine, where it got truly cold, though not as cold as it used to. “Cold Spell” was first published in Maine Times.

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