The old year has given the warning signs that it’s about to start winding down to a close. The nights have a bit more nip in them than usual and the trees are changing color — “catching fire”, as a favorite aunt of mine used to put it, all reds and oranges and yellows.
Around the kitchen stove in the evening, it used to be a competitive sport to foretell the winter, though one you needed gray in your hair in order to participate in. Us young fellows were allowed to listen, and maybe grunt appreciatively, but that was it. They had their ways of letting us know when we spoke too much — and quite right they were, too. What did we know of winter, after all, we who had seen a mere twelve or eighteen or thirty of them? Why, even my father was barely old enough to recall the winter of ’52, a memorable February when there were storms of two and three feet coming right hard on one another’s heels until there was eight feet of fresh sitting on top of a winter’s worth of crusts and ice and remnants.
In those days, indoor plumbing was something for cities; decent folk had an outhouse and liked it. But with drifts of fifteen feet, keeping the path clear to the outhouse was no job for the faint of heart; it was continual, even in the worst of the storms. You didn’t dare let up on it. After all, it would be a cruel hard thing to get caught short with three feet of snow in the path, and you wearing your best wool pants. Good thick wool is cozy and warm, but it doesn’t exactly dry easy.
Now, shoveling a path through three feet of snow is a good brisk bit of exercise, the kind to really wake you up in the morning. Then, every time the wind shifts, you just know it’ll drift right into your path, so you have to go out again every few hours through the day. If you keep livestock – a milk cow and some chickens, perhaps – you’ll have chores to keep you occupied in between shovelings; then again, you’ll also have another path to keep clear. (Note: Small children are perfect for this. It keeps them out from under foot and wears them right out. Young kids love the snow: Take advantage while you can.)
Keeping a path clear is harder once the walls get to five or six feet, it being so much further up to toss the snow. This is the time when you’ll be glad you thought to make that path extra wide; it gives you room to really get a good arc of swing in the end of that shovel. Half an hour of this and your arms feel like lead weights — and you’re still only halfway to the outhouse. But you’ll press on gamely until you reach that friendly half-moon door, and even odds by the time you get there you’ll be glad you did. Then, by the time you’ve finished your business, you’ll have drifts to clear on the way back.
But a truly hard winter, like that February in ’52, you’ve got snowbanks over your head to each side of the path. It’s not a decent path if you can’t see brown grass at the bottom; the older folks will look, and laugh, and come out to show you how it’s done. Which all in all isn’t a bad thing; there’s a real art to clearing a path through ten feet of snow, and you want an expert to show you the proper method. Better, you want two shovels, two experts, and a young kid with way too much energy.
What you do is, you station the kid at the bottom. He fills the first shovel and hands it to his uncle, who’s perched three feet up the side of the path, standing on that hard old buried crust. He in turn hands it up to grandpa, who’s up six feet off the ground, somehow managing to stand with his feet stuck in the side of what you’d swear was soft fresh snow. And he’ll hand that empty shovel back down, and take a full one again to throw, and like that the three of you will work your way clear to the outhouse — which at best has two holes and never three. Age has its privileges, so if you’re the fellow at the bottom it helps if you move quick. (There’s a pun there, but I won’t dignify it by taking the time to point it out to you.)
The things you learn when you’re clever enough to listen; I’ll tell ya. This is how age-old wisdom is handed down in Maine: sitting around the kitchen stove, listening to the stovewood pop and crackle and sipping hot tea strong enough to patch the roof.
But I was telling you about the gentle art of predicting a hard winter, and now there isn’t time left. I’ll let you in on one of my secrets, though, one I learned from John Gould: It’s always going to be the worst winter you’ve ever seen in your life, with snow up over the eaves and a nasty wind that drills right through the side of the house. Reason is, if you’re always ready for a winter like that, you’ll never be disappointed by what comes, and you’re unlikely to run low on stovewood and canned goods. Sometimes you’ll even be right — but if you are, don’t brag about it. ‘Round about the middle of February, when there’s ten foot snowbanks and fifteen foot drifts, folks don’t much like listening to a fellow go on about how he knew this was coming, ’cause if he really did, wouldn’t he be in Florida like a sensible person?
People can lose their sense of humor over the strangest things that time of year. Don’t ask me why.
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