The wind is gusting in a low whistle outside my study, blowing snow on the front porch. The mercury reads 15 and it’s still a couple of hours until sunrise. Today’s to-do list has been written: Deliver hay and carry out the usual farm chores. Set up heaters in the livestock watering tanks. Castrate and vaccinate calves, then move cattle to their winter pasture up in the back forty. Dig postholes for the new hog enclosure and set posts in concrete. And, of course, attend to any newborn lambs that may have been born overnight.
As a boy I loved the idea of winter. The beauty of deep snow, the struggle for survival, the sleigh rides down empty back roads; marching along snow-covered trails, trapping rabbits with carefully made snares…. In short, a knowledge about winter gained from Jack London and his ilk by a youth who grew up south of Interstate 10 in Louisiana.
Books of my childhood filled my head with the romance of knee-deep snow, temperatures so cold that lakes froze, the struggle to build a fire and the penalty of failure. So when this Louisiana boy moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and a few weeks later — January 21, 1985 — the temperature plunged to minus 24 degrees, with about 12 inches of snow to add to the joy, I thought I was living my dream. The city seemed liberated from the demands of the day-to-day. Of course, there was no real struggle. We could always retreat into our drafty old apartments in Fort Sanders to escape the worst of weather. But there was plenty of room to let the inner kid out to play.
That joy and wonder has been tempered since we moved to the farm in 1999. We have had plenty of gorgeous snows and any number of brutal cold snaps. We have had ice storms and been unable to leave the property for a week. But now, when I look at the forecast and see that it will not be above freezing for 4-7 days, that there might be an inch or a dozen of snow, I clap a hand over my inner child’s mouth. Because I know what the data mean now. And I know that no boss is going to call me and say “we are closed today.” The farm doesn’t get a snow day.
Winter on the farm means breaking ice, hauling hay in slick mud and snow, loading hogs in finger-numbing cold, fixing the burst pipe in the workshop because I forgot to turn off the water. It means carrying the rock bar up to the back forty to bust the ice on the pond so the cattle can drink. It means that instead of sitting in my chair reading about Shackleton, I have to get out in the goddamned weather and be Shackleton … even if only for a few hours.
Yet, still this morning, as I wait for the predawn light, the kid who loved Jack London is awake and waiting to see the beauty of a snow-covered world. Possibly, when the temperature rises above 20, there will be a walk across the farm. I’ll go down a wooded path with the trees frosted in white blankets, listening to the muted world of the snowy valley.
But for now, I think I’ll postpone the walk and the non-essentials of the to-do list, and instead sit wrapped in a blanket and read about Shackleton on the Endurance.
Reading this weekend: A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway