I knew the night was going to be different when I saw that the water bottle I keep by my bed was beginning to freeze, the infrared heater in the bedroom wasn’t making a dent in the wind and sub-zero temperatures hammering our upstairs bedroom, which has no storm windows and little insulation. We abandoned our bed and went downstairs to sleep with two wood stoves, two barn cats, three dogs.
Strange but cozy. The farmers around here all say, as I do, that this kind of cold feels different there is something deep and raw about it, I remember my encounters with arctic systems well – I have some frostbitten fingers and toes to show for it – I have learned to take them seriously.
Life with Maria is an art festival that never stops. She is always an eclectic dresser but her farm chore outfits are a wonder to me. Sometimes she does them in pink boots and her wedding dress, sometimes she mixes and matches, as she did today, layering up for the bitter cold – a big nightshirt, boots, two or three scarves, her beloved green hoodie and various vests and blouses. Not the typical garb of the farm wife heading for the barn in winter. I love her outfits, there is something timeless and out of place about them, she is an artist every second of her life, it took her awhile to get there, but that is really the garb she never takes off.
We had a planning meeting, astonishingly rare for us. I know in -15 degree weather with high winds and drifting snow we only have 10 to 15 minutes before the exposed skin starts to freeze, my fingers start throbbing three steps out of the door. Our plan: Maria goes to her car and warms up the engine (mine is in the shop, the mechanism that moves it up and down froze and broke, hopefully the car will come back today.) We are stuck with her little car, a Toyota Yarus, a lawn mower with a windshield, I call it a toilet bowl with wheels. Last night, we braved the storm to head out into town for dinner with our friends Jack and Kim Macmillian.
I told Jack we are getting to be true upstate people doing a dumb thing like that, there was nobody on the roads. We tried for a neat bar called the Bog, but were tossed out, they were closing due to the weather, like sane people. We made it to Salvano’s, an Italian restaurant on Main Street, which wanted to close but took pity and served us, and where we had some wonderful homemade chicken soup. I asked Jack and Kim to follow us in the toilet bowl to make sure we got home, Maria got a bit defensive about it.
When we get outside this morning, I haul the water bucket from the bathroom (frozen faucets outside) to the pasture. Maria goes into the barn where we meet, I bring hay to the sheep feeder, she takes it out to the donkeys. Red comes into the barn to keep the sheep at bay, and in their corner. People keep suggesting I get cleats, I have about a half-dozen pairs of them, they are profoundly useless in a barn or a pasture or deep woods or anywhere there is deep snow, mud, hay and manure.
Wordlessly, we move on. I get the rake and shovel the manure into a pile, Maria gets a big shovel, scoops it up and scatters it outside. I have to say we are quite a team, we work rhythmically together. My fingers are screaming now, I see that Red is dancing up and down a bit on the snow, the first time I’ve seen that, it is so cold. Maria goes and turns off the car, I shovel around the back door a bit, we call it quits, 14 minutes. I make hot oatmeal for breakfast. We will make some additional short runs. My utility e-mailed me and urged people my age to stay indoors and call neighbors for help. Nuts to you, I e-mailed back, who asked you to tell me what chores I can or can’t do?
Maria keeps saying I should stay inside, I point out that she is just a runt, the water bucket is half as big as she is, we can do it together. She sometimes takes an exception to this approach, tells me to go inside. I tell her the same thing I tell the utility company.
I see the marketers at the Weather Channel have named this storm Hercules, another goofy name, but I am seeing what is different about climate change this week – giant storms, rolling all across the country, heavy snow in bitter cold, warm air traveling over cold, which is unusual, wild fluctuations in temperature. It seems most of the country is into heavy weather much of the time, the Midwest is a lot colder than Upstate New York this week. You can’t bitch about cold weather in upstate New York, what could anyone expect?
It looks like we got about 10 inches of snow all together over the last day or so, big drifts from blowing wind, -15 tonight. I think we will be sleeping downstairs again, on the sofas, by the wood stove. The animals are all right, the chickens are huddled together in their coop, the donkeys are irritable and restless, the sheep twitchy and also restless. Here’s my boundary, my approach: I can keep them alive, I can keep them healthy. I can’t always keep them warm and comfortable.
I wonder what Maria will wear for the afternoon chores.