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 bucks were allowed to listen in, 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 could barely remember 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, of course, 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. 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. And then, of course, 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’ve got a barn with, say, a cow and maybe some chickens, you’ll have chores to keep you occupied in between shovellings; on the other hand, you’ll also have another path to keep clear. (Note: Small children are useful for this task. It keeps them out from under foot, and besides, kids love the snow. Right?)
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, considering the alternative, 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. Down side, 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, and the ground’s easily three feet beneath you, buried under ice and compacted snow as well as what’s still falling. And of course it’s not a decent path if you can’t see the ground; 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; it’s a real art clearing a path through ten feet of snow, and you want an expert to show you the proper method. Actually, you want two experts and a young kid with way too much energy.
Because what you do is, you station your kid at the bottom. He fills that shovel and hands it to his uncle, who’s perched three feet up the side of the path, standing on that hard old crust buried in there. And he hands it to grandpa, who’s up six feet off the ground, somehow managing to stand with his feet stuck in the side of the path, deep in 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’re quick.
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. ‘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 sometimes, around that time of year. Don’t ask me why.