Part of my chore-time ritual, twice a day, is to muck a wheelbarrow full of accumulated waste hay and sheep poop from the barn floor and trundle it out to the compost heap. Even with this effort, the stuff builds up. It’s anywhere from 6 inches to a foot deep in the part of the barn closest to the hay manger.
This morning, as I was doing the mucking, I felt my fingers go a bit numb. I was wearing inner gloves and outer gloves, but it was pretty cold to be working in the barn. It was the sort of cold you feel when the air hits your face walking into a freezer storage room.
My reaction, to my surprise, was to echo my late great-uncle Max when he entered the lake at our Catskills bungalow colony on a hot summer day. In my memory, he bellowed out “L’Chaim” as he splashed himself with the cold water, which you all know from Fiddler on the Roof means “to life,” a toast. As my cousin Al, who actually speaks Yiddish, has corrected me, he actually was calling out “mechaya,” “a pleasure.” This morning, I said to myself, what a pleasure, how refreshing to feel real winter cold.
There is something I have long loved about the extremes of winter, the stretches of bitter cold for days on end. Sure, everything is harder to do. Gates ice shut, doors won’t slide open. Even though I keep an electric de-icer in the sheep’s water tank, ice can freeze over the top, requiring that I break it up with a prising bar. The painful numbness of my hands, my toes, my nose and my cheeks that takes over after an hour of chores in the cold, the feeling of being chilled to the bone, remains with me even after I come inside.
But that pain, the struggle with the elements, also makes me feel, well… Butch. Strong. Healthy. Getting up to the barn with frigid north winds whipping the snow off the pastures into my eyes feels like I’ve gone on an Arctic expedition. Just finishing chores always seems like a small victory. My romantic macho farmer fantasy of myself finds momentary validation.
The sensation of braving the cold is one I have almost missed entirely this year. Even when Eric and I traveled to northern Vermont two weeks ago in search of winter we found mild temperatures. The ski conditions were surprisingly good, but it was good spring skiing, including some bare spots and slush, in mid February. Here on the farm there has hardly been a challenging chore time.
I will freely admit that my taste for braving the cold is not the best reason to complain about the mild weather. Don’t worry, I have other reasons, too. I worry that it will have bad effects on the farm.
For example, I am concerned that the weather will interfere with my lambs going to market as scheduled this Monday. Usually I can count on the ground being frozen hard at this time of year, and a truck therefore being able to back up to the barn for them to be loaded in. It seems touch and go for this Monday whether the ground instead will be muddy, and the truck unable to approach it.
I am concerned too that the lack of prolonged deep cold will mean winter doesn’t take any toll at all on pests and pestilence. Will ticks, voles, and spores of plant diseases all come through winter in full flourish, and reproduce in overwhelming numbers a couple of months from now? Will this summer be a nightmare of insect bites and plant diseases?
And what does the apparent acceleration of spring mean for my fruit trees? I’ve always understood that it’s best to trim fruit trees when they are dormant. If it is warm on a sustained basis, are there dangers in continuing to trim? Also, with a season that doesn’t know whether it’s winter or spring, will the trees be prompted to flower earlier than they should? If they flower just as a cold snap happens, the entire season could be wiped out. Earlier flowering increases that risk.
At least the mild weather has meant that I’ve made great progress in trimming the trees. It’s been delightful most days to work outside. Spending all that time with the fruit trees has given me lots of time to think about the wonders of their growth process. I’m constantly enthralled by their now fat and very visible buds.The buds are so tender that the sheep run over to devour them as soon as I throw the trimmed branches over the fence. Yet they are so tough that they form and thrive in mid-winter in even the coldest years, and manage to survive the vicissitudes of the weather to become delicate flowers and luscious fruit.
Which leaves me in a state of some internal contradiction. For all that I may miss having had a real winter, I am still excited, as I always am, for the signs of incipient spring all around. Things won’t remain dormant for long. The rapidly greening branches of the forsythia bushes and willow trees, the fiery red bark of the coral bark maple, the sorrel leaves and daffodil leaves poking out of the ground in the vegetable garden and perennial garden all remind me that life resurges. About that I have no regrets at all.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK: LAMB AND EGGS
EGGS ARE BACK! Nature destroys but it also regenerates. Egg production is back in full swing. Choice of rich concentrated young pullet eggs or regular size eggs, either way $6/dozen
TIME TO ORDER LAMB Order a whole or half lamb, cut to your specifications, $7/lb hanging weight. Lambs go to market Feb. 28, so you need to get your cutting instructions in now.
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