December 17, 2004
THE RURAL LIFE
When Winter Comes
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
or as long as I've lived in the country, I've tried to figure out what it means
to be ready for winter. Every winter brings a different answer. One year the
chimney gets cleaned; one year the rain gutters. One year I stack enough wood
to heat us through May, and one year the garden gets put to bed properly. But
I've never managed to make all these things happen in the same year. The only
constant, year to year, is hay. There's always enough of it, stacked well
before the leaves have finished falling. The horses insist.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm always preparing for a different winter
than the one that comes. When we first bought this small farm, I discovered
that you can muddle through even a hard winter. The power mostly stays on. The
oil man comes on a regular schedule. The phone never goes out.
Sometimes, well below zero, the yard hydrants freeze up, but with a little heat
tape, they thaw again. Even in the dead of winter, the wood man will make a
delivery, though calling him feels like a sober confession of failure.
The last two winters in the Hudson Valley were brutal. Yet they weren't as long
or as hard or as dark as I expected them to be. The winter solstice comes and
goes before the real cold begins, so I always feel that at least we have that
out of the way. No matter how bitter it gets in late January, it won't be
getting any darker. The season is always more transitional than it seems, as
fleeting as summer. Every day is headway toward spring.
No matter how unprepared I am, I always imagine preparing for a winter you
can't muddle through. It's a deep, wooded season. Time pauses and then pauses
again. The sun winks over the horizon, glinting on a snow-swept lake - just
enough light to wake the chickadees.
The eaves are low all around the house that this winter comes to, and I've
surrounded the entire house with cordwood, leaving gaps for the windows and
doors. Winter will go nowhere until I've burned through it all.
I have no plans except to rake the snow off the roof after the next big
blizzard, and carry out the ashes from the woodstove, and read everything I've
ever meant to read.
Of course, a daydream like this isn't really about winter or snow or firewood
or even the feeling of having prepared every last thing that needs preparing.
It's about something far more elemental, the time that moves through us day by
day. It's an old human hope - to have a consciousness separate from the
consciousness of time. But it's always a vain hope.
I'll never get that much cordwood stacked, and never need to. Winter comes and
goes in the same breath, condensing right before your face on a day when the
temperature never gets up to 20 degrees.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company