Thank heaven for Mount Washington! Any time we begin to feel oppressed by our winter down here in the valley, we can always hear (because the weather reporters are assiduous about reporting to us) what it’s doing at the top of Mount Washington. Then we feel MUCH better.
On Foundation Farm last Monday (Martin Luther King Day all over the nation except in bigoted New Hampshire, where it’s Civil Rights Day) the morning started overcast at -10 — an improvement from the -28 it had been the morning before. By the time I was ready to drive to Dartmouth, it had warmed up to +10, but it was snowing, with a forecast of at least a foot. So I didn’t drive to Dartmouth. I stayed in my study drinking tea, cleaning up mail, watching the countryside dissolve into downward-driving whiteness, and listening to what it was doing on Mount Washington. Minus 7 with winds gusting up to 83 miles an hour! Hurray for Mount Washington!
On days like that the cats stay by the windows watching the birds wipe us out of feed. We have a thistle-seed feeder out the east kitchen window, patronized by polite goldfinches, purple finches, and an occasional chickadee. Out the west window is the mob scene that drives the cats crazy — two hanging feeders in the lilacs stuffed with peanut hearts and cracked corn, a dangling suet container, and on a tall pole a house-shaped feeder heaped with sunflower seeds. We get hoodlum gangs of blue jays and starlings, flittering chickadees, upside-down nuthatches (both white- and red-breasted), tree sparrows, mourning doves, evening grosbeaks, woodpeckers on the suet, and every now and then a cardinal, screamingly red against the snow. The white geese huddle in the white snow below, tucking their heads under their wings and almost disappearing, until a jay knocks some cracked corn out of the feeder and brings them into action. Occasionally our cat Poppy climbs into the lilac and perches there motionless, pretending to be an enormous, fluffy, gray-and-white chickadee. She fools no one, certainly not the chickadees.
I was surprised yesterday to look up from my desk in the study and see a bird completely new to me eating frozen crabapples from the little tree I planted on the front lawn. It was, the book told me, a female pine grosbeak. Isn’t it amazing, I said to John, that after 21 years in this place we can still see new birds? It’s either amazing, he said, in his lugubrious fashion, or it’s a sign of climate change. That’s the kind of comment I might make, of course, but John and I have worked out a co-dependent arrangement where he is assigned to see the worst and I to see the best in every situation. He will point out that it’s damn cold out; I will rejoice that we’re not at the top of Mount Washington. Between the two of us we summarize the situation pretty accurately, but since neither believes the other for a minute, he remains convinced that the world is going down the tubes, I am convinced that salvation lies just around the corner, and we never run out of conversation.
Well, it’s a deep, dark, classic January this year, below zero except when it’s snowing, snowing except when it’s below zero. That storm on Monday dumped about 3 feet. It took us two days to dig out. Now I go on my animal chores along narrow paths lined by white walls higher than my waist. The world of the short-legged animals, the geese and cats, has narrowed to those paths alone. The dogs and sheep can plow through and make their own ways, but generally choose not to, because it takes so much energy. The chickens don’t leave the chicken house at all any more.
After the snow came the bitter cold. It’s been below zero every night, 35 below on Thursday, 25 below on Friday, 18 below this morning. One morning my little Honda was the only car on Daniels Road that would start, and since, as John sneers, its tinkertoy battery could never turn over a decent car’s motor, we gave up on the starter cables and used the Honda to run Brenna to school and my neighbor Ruth and me to work.
When it’s so cold the main struggle is to keep water liquid. After 21 years of patching, caulking, and insulating this leaky old house, we are finally getting through the winter without frozen pipes, though on the coldest nights I still stoke up the woodstoves, just to be sure. (We have a new wood/oil-burning forced-hot-water furnace, but we also still have six woodstoves scattered around the house. I keep the one in my study going constantly, just because it’s cozier that way.) Outside we have small electric heaters in the sheep water tank and under the chicken waterer, but the heaters can’t cut it when the temperature gets below zero. So twice a day I haul frozen buckets inside to thaw and take hot water back out, hoping the creatures will be able to drink enough before it freezes over.
Why would anyone live in such a place? That’s what I was thinking about Los Angeles this week, not about New Hampshire. After years of adaptation, I have come to cherish the winter here, the time for cuddling in to write and listen to music and venture out just enough to do the chores, dig out the cars, bring in wood, and feel heroic. And it’s SO beautiful! On Monday night, all heated after digging my way up to the chicken house, I turned around and looked down the hill at the farm. Snow was falling hard, sparkling as it crossed the beams of the barn and yard lights. Warmth glowed from the house windows. The whole landscape was draped and softened and pillowed in white. The sheep were bedded down, drifts piling up on their well-insulated backs. Because it was snowing, it was above zero, balmy by our standards. I was filled with as much love and joy as I feel in the spring when the place is full of apple blossoms, or in the summer when I get overwhelmed by the many shades of green, or in the fall when gold sun shines through gold leaves. It feels like a blessing to live here any time of year (except, maybe, in mud-colored November and March).
The Foundation Farm Improvement Program chugs steadily along, though it is confined to the indoors now. John, on his endless quest to tighten up the house, spent last week insulating the north wall of the basement by the stairs — a trouble spot for years. I got the accumulated grease and dust off the top of the refrigerator, dusted the china cupboards in the dining room, and PLANTED (because I couldn’t resist) some lettuce and spinach and feldsalat and stock in flats, to give us early greens and flowers.
The seeds I ordered are arriving. The hens have finished their moult and are laying again. All of a sudden, we’ve noticed, it’s ACTUALLY LIGHT before 7 in the morning and after 5 at night. Though we’re at the coldest time of year, we’ve turned the orbital corner toward spring.
I kind of dread spring, because we are unequipped for it with only John and me as a workforce. There are some exciting possibilities for new people, but I won’t tell you about them yet because they’re uncertain, and I don’t want to disappoint either you or me. Suffice it to say that next week Bill Maclay, a friend who is an earth-friendly architect, is coming to start on an extensive site-plan for the five-acre corner of the farm that we left developable. (The rest we put under conservation easements, off-limits forever for anything but farming and forestry.) We are going to expand the little house where the Spains lived and attach it to the big house. And if the Town of Plainfield gives us permission, we’d like to do more than that. Stay tuned!
Speaking of the Spains, I went to see them this week in their new place in South Royalton. It’s a cute house, with a barn not only for Beebie the horse, but also for Heather’s new pony! Heather is her usual bouncy self, quite at home in her new first grade class; Don is busy earning an EMT degree; Sylvia is trying to get her first book about Faith the Sheep published, while working on her second book about John’s relentlessly naughty cat Kitty. I miss them, but I’m glad to see them settled in their own place.
This winter I’m teaching the environmental journalism class again at Dartmouth — 14 eager-beaver students, all of whom have to sell an article to a commercial publication for real money before they can get an A. They’re off to a good start. Sometimes the courage they show, diving into some of the deepest issues, expressing what is at the center of their hearts, moves me to tears. They’re still splitting their infinitives and dangling their participles, though, so we have work to do.
I like coaching young writers. It makes me more conscious and more enthusiastic about my own writing.
Which is going much too slowly along the textbook line, but extremely well along the column line. After years of trying, I finally have a syndicate!!! It’s not the one I wanted (the Washington Post Writers Group). It’s not even one I’d heard of, before I started doing business with it. It’s called AlterNet, and it operates through electronic mail, using Compuserve. It sends to about 100 alternative weekly papers and magazines, of the ilk of the Boston Phoenix and Mother Jones. Not the mainstream audience I want. But heck, it’s wonderful to have someone besides me selling the column, even if they scoop off half the take. And since their subscribers do not overlap at all with the 20 papers I already sell to, I can keep the income I already get (roughly $1000/month) — whatever comes from AlterNet will be gravy.
This arrangement came about thanks to the editor of a weekly in Houston, who has a cousin in Vermont, who sent him clips of my column. The Houston editor decided to run my column and talked AlterNet (to which he already subscribed) into supplying it to him!
So, you good folks out there who have been trying to get your local paper to run The Global Citizen, here’s another way to do it besides signing up directly with me. Sign up with AlterNet, 2025 I St NW, Washington DC 20006, 202-887-0022.
The only traveling I’ve had to do this month was a two-day trip to the National Geographic, and next month I don’t even have that — a whole month without a trip! It’s just as well; there’s so much to do here at home. In addition to teaching and chores, I have to get the Balaton Bulletin out, the OTA report finished, proposals written to fund Balaton and to get a meeting going in the Philippines and another in Latvia and another, the first North American Balaton meeting, in California. Oh yes, and write the textbook. And the column. And start the spring seeds. And send off the wool and the skins and get ready for lambing.
And knit. I’m into socks, thanks to Rike Bossel’s outstanding sock recipe. I’ve made myself three pair and I’m in the middle of a second pair for John. With these socks one’s feet Do Not Get Cold, even at -35. I read while I knit (or knit while I read, depending on how you want to look at it), and I have a pile about two feet high of accumulated magazines, books, and articles to work through. Maybe by the time I get done with the whole reading pile, everyone will have enough socks.
Keep warm, everybody, Stay off Mount Washington.
P.S. I include at the back of this month’s columns a reprint of one I sent last month, plus the ways it was reproduced in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune, so you can enjoy the saga of the INCREDIBLE SHRINKING COLUMN!