Warmth in February


Few of us are as joyful as a dog on her farm. We head out into negative ten degrees so I can get fresh air, which is to say, watch my dog be joyful. With my grandfather’s scarf and her furry toes, we hurry into the sharp wind towards the woods. She merges with white ground and dark trees.

Stepping out of the woods at the hilltop, I keep my back to the wind. The sky shines blue-white. I can feel my skin making vitamin D as I face the sun. It is worth breaking hibernation to feel lifted.

duckslookingThe next morning, our thermometer will read negative thirty. Our kitchen sink pipes will freeze, despite the space heater aimed at them overnight. The car will think we’re joking when we turn the key. Our chickens and ducks, penned in the barn, will be absolutely fine.

Our chickens are mostly cold-hardy breeds, but negative thirty seems to be asking a lot of their feathers. I marvel at their toughness. Then I see a hawk, a crow, and some sparrows in the woods and field. Some birds can handle winter.

Birds can fluff their feathers, trapping air for insulation. The skin on their naked legs can defy the cold. In dangerous low temperatures, birds can reroute blood from their extremities to their organs. Some birds can lower their metabolism, slowing their bodies into a hibernation-type state called torpor. They survive what seems unsurvivable.

winterwindowI am thinking about resilience. Sometimes our lives seem as fragile as birds, but we rise anyway. How does a person survive a cold, dangerous time? One February night could freeze us solid, robbing us of our known world, or it could galvanize some warmth inside us. Do we respond by instinct, our hearts pulsing life to our most necessary parts? Do some of us survive through torpor, numb and still until the thaw?

Perhaps we, like our chickens, get out of the wind and huddle together, sharing the heat of our bodies to endure the night. This deep cold is a story we have shared. The next day, or the next year, or twenty-five years later, we can be amazed that we remain fluid and tender and animate.

Resilience must be a gift from our animal selves. I think of a three-dog night, when humans gauged coldness by how many dogs snuggling around us we needed to live until dawn. We seek connection for survival. We do not contain resilience in our rational minds; it comes from elsewhere.

Despite degrees in the negatives, this February day is radiant. My blood flows warm after the uphill hike, flushing my cheeks and sweating my armpits. I am grinning at the dog whirling across our high field, laughing as she snuffles under the snow and lifts her tufted ears in surprise. This dog is all warmth. I feel alive.



Sending Down Roots

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Twilight this evening makes the world glow blue. The snow-covered ground reflects the dense sky. Finally, the winter we anticipated when we closed down the garden this fall has arrived. I slip into the barn to gather eggs—bluish-green and shades of brown—and watch the dog kick up some powder as she tears around on the hill.

Then we go inside to make French onion soup for supper. The smell of onions and garlic roasting with olive oil and thyme will fill the kitchen and spill into the mudroom when Andrew comes home.

I collect an armload of onions from our root cellar, a reliable source of satisfaction. Our root cellar used to be the cistern for water storage in the basement. Two thick stone walls complete a rectangle enclosing a corner under the kitchen.

The previous owner short-sightedly bashed a hole into the foundation to allow him to toss wood from the driveway into the cistern. He hammered another opening in the cistern wall to carry wood to the wood-burning furnace, which he later un-installed.

2015-09-26 01.11.24Andrew and my dad spent many summer days in that cistern, fixing the damages. Stones jigsawed into the foundation hole. A wooden frame closed the space between the stone wall and the kitchen floor joists. Insulation filled all the gaps. They poured a concrete doorway, then built a door, now held by hinges and a latch blacksmithed by my dad.

2015-09-26 01.14.03To get to that door, I walk past shelves they built, now laden with canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, dilly beans, pickled beets, plum jam, hot pepper jam, hot peppers, hot cucumber relish, and a bin of butternut squash. I lift the heavy latchpin and swing open the door.

Wooden crates—thanks again to dad—stack five kinds of potatoes against one wall. Many, many potatoes. Carrots and daikon radishes hide in tubs of damp sawdust. Onions fill another crate. I grab five large onions and head upstairs to cry as I slice them thinly.

We have sent down roots in this place, and I think about home. I juggle deep gratitude for our marriage, kids, farm, and jobs with the ache of living away from family and decades-old friendships. We each have strong roots in other places—Pennsylvania and Indiana—where family, extended family, and close friends coincide. We find ourselves living in neither of those places, but digging into life here. I find myself full and missing.

At my kids’ ages, I lived on the farm where my dad grew up. I had the sense of belonging that comes through generations of living there. After high school, I left home quickly, eager for new places, unconscious of what I was leaving behind.

Home always has layers and complications. How do I feel rooted in a place where all of our roots are only one year deep? What will our kids understand of themselves in this place? How can we connect them to our village, when it spans multiple states?

Now, home is where our potatoes parallel this stone foundation. Home is the dog among the chickens, the dog and the chickens in our kids’ arms. Our village is the kindness of strangers becoming friends, coworkers adopting us like family. We are lucky. On this blue evening, our home is warm. Our roots are roasting in the oven.

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Digging potatoes in October
Potatoes and onions in February

Between Contentment and Complaint


At the back of our property, the bottom corner, I hear the trees talking. It’s a sound somewhere between contentment and complaint, a creaking of two lives rubbing against each other. The wind whips the dog’s happy breath upwards in small clouds. She and I are exploring beyond our boundaries, walking and just walking some more.

Despite long underwear and heavy coat, I will feel chilled for an hour after this walk. It’s a rare day this winter that is truly cold. Winter’s brown-grey palatte seems more vibrant in the woods than in town, or even at the farmstead. In the woods, winter seems like exactly what should be happening, instead of a bleak time of waiting for spring.

Our neighbor’s two-track carries me around the original 100+ acres that once belonged to our house and barns, but is now divided between them and us. They are good neighbors. Walking this loop, I am accepting their invitation, given a year ago. For several strides, I envy them these woods, where they touch the edge of a large wetland.

At this boundary, I stop and the dog freezes—heads high, ears alert, scanning the swamp. The otherness here holds both of us. Wetlands always make me feel this way, as if I’m touching velvet on an antler—wild texture and mystery. The not-woods, not-lake, not-field opens my imagination. My envy dissolves when I remember our neighbors’ invitation. The gift of this place has been offered to me, too.

This is early January, and it will be my last hike for a month. While I hike, my parents are watching the kids. While my boots crunch ice, Andrew sweats in a different forest—Amazon rainforest—with teeming greens and inexorable dampness. He helps to lead fourteen undergraduate students well beyond their previous experiences. When he returns, we will spend three weeks flattened by flu and respiratory infections. February will find us hatching slowly back into regular activities.

For now, following the edge of this wetland connects me to Andrew, who taught me to see this type of landscape. I can outline our relationship by connecting the dots from Onion Bottom in Indiana through bogs in the Northwoods all the way to swamps in southern Georgia. We’ve found carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants, and read stories in water-loving trees like willow or cypress, or trees that drown when the water rises. We try to understand the places that are neither terra firma nor open water.

The dog, as always, covers triple my distance as we turn away from the low, wet acres and head uphill. We emerge from the woods, skirt a pasture, then crest the hill through our large, stubbled field, which stood tall and green-gold with rye this summer. I’ll return from my hike’s solitude to the house full of our kids and my parents. Our lives will keep rubbing against each other, creaking like trees, offering texture and mystery.