Monday, December 26, 2011

Green Winter

Christmas morning in Kentucky

My Grampa Mac was wary of a 'green' or 'open' winter.
Growing up on a small farm tucked at the base of Tongue Mountain in the Adirondacks, he learned that winter was a time that called for preparedness. The woodshed needed to be well-stocked with dry chunks and kindling; hay for cows and horses was under cover; the last mellow days of autumn were filled with battening down the buildings to withstand harsh winds and days and nights of below zero temperatures.
Any loose shingles or boards were nailed tight; the screen doors which had been a blessing in summer's heat were removed and stored in the barn loft and the sturdy 'storm doors' set on oiled hinges in their place. Straw and leaves were bedded along the foundation of the house with tar paper wrapped over to keep this natural insulation in place.
In the house the pantry and cellar were well stocked with home grown root vegetables; barrels of apples went to rest in the unheated north room with a stack of clean horse blankets kept handy to spread over them on especially cold nights when only the core rooms of the house could be kept warm.

Woods along the west boundary line.
Grampa Mac moved the few miles across Lake Champlain to Vermont when he married.
The new farm had more open acreage, larger meadows and bigger barns.
There were more animals to be cared for, a greater expanse of roofs to be kept sound, more windows to be caulked shut with felt weather stripping.
When all was done in the way of preparation for the worst that the cold months might present, one waited on the weather.
Killing frost usually crept in on a clear moonlit night in late Septmember.  October was a month of whimsical weather in New England: there would be mornings when hoarfrost lay thick on grass which had lost its fresh green color; nights were referred to as 'nippy.' Mid-day was often bright with sunshine and skies of a blue so intense that the senses reeled with the attempt to absorb and hold the beauty against the dull days which November would surely bring.
November was a month which bore down on me during the Vermont years.  Snow might come to at least temporarily cover browned grass and congealed mud. The sun, if it rose at all, often lurked behind dirty grey clouds before sinking in the west at the end of a short day.
By December, in the average season, the frost had driven deep into the ground and snow, often several feet of it, had come to stay.
In the odd years when the temperatures didn't plummet and snow was replaced with the drizzle of icy rain or sleet, old timers made dire predictions. An open winter, they said, brought sickness.  Cold was needed to kill off lingering 'germs.'  Freezing temperatures and a thick snow cover, it was thought, would cause various insect pests to perish in their hibernating forms. Planting ground would benefit from the
iron cold of a hard winter.

Bare branches and trunks of trees are etched against a winter blue sky.

My grandparent's generation saw many changes; rural electrification was nearly complete. Telephones connected farm families with their immediate neighbors and with the doctor, the banker, the pastor, who lived a few miles away in the village.
Travel was still hard work in cold weather.  Car batteries went dead in the cold, heaters and defrosters worked sluggishly. Chains had to be fitted over tires for traction in snow and ice.
Even on a day of winter sunshine travel was kept to a minimum.
The carrying in of wood and the removal of ashes was a daily job. On nights when the temperatures plunged to 20 below zero [Farenheit] the last person to run water in the kitchen or the bathroom sink had best remember to leave the faucet at a steady drip in hopes that frozen water pipes could be avoided.
All too often a prolonged cold spell meant that rooms were closed off in the house and all activities were clustered around the warm core of the kitchen living room stoves. Someone was always at home to tend the fires---and to watch for that dreaded occurance--a chinmey fire.
Woolen blankets came out of mothballs; extra sweaters, fuzzy socks and mittens, knitted caps and scarfs were layered on in the effort to make outdoor forays bearable.

One of our neighbor's steers has made regular visits into our back pasture, leaving clumps of hair on the fence.

A white winter was beautiful in its purity of snow which covered stubbled fields and spread  blue-shadowed beneath the trees. Morning sun sparkled through  frost-etched window panes and bedazzled each ice-clad twig and branch.

Willis frisked about the yard, landing heavily in a clump of nepeta as D. and I walked along the edge of the flower garden on Christmas Day.

A bird's nest tucked in the ragged old apple tree.

Strawberry plants in the upper garden sport both red and green leaves.

Kentucky Colonel mint surrounds a sprig of catnip.

One of my seed-grown lavenders.

Willis parades along the sideboards on Snort'n Nort'n.

Willow and Wilbur wrestle in the cat yard outside the open door.

Wilbur, the shy boy.

December 30th.  J. took this photo when he went out to feed Pebbles.

Dandelions in the upper garden, December 29.

The herb garden by the back door.

Branches of a tulip poplar sketched against blue December sky.

My Grampa Mac's diaries record the weather and seasons of his long years on the Vermont farm. He noted temperatures, particularly the coldest ones registered on the thermometer tacked to the shed door.
He mentioned snow and ice, recorded the endless round of chores which kept the homeplace functioning in all weather.
He would have been mis-trustful, I think, of our Kentucky winter.
Last year, our first in this climate, there was snow on Christmas Eve. There were school closings throught January and February when freezing rain brought the hazard of 'black ice' on the narrow roads which wind
along the back sides of ridges and plunge into the 'hollers' which seldom see sunlight on a winter day.
"This isn't a normal winter," we were told, almost apologetically.
This year as our region basks in temperate days still green grass we are warned, "This is more like it--but we could pay for it in January--or even March!"
So we wait, enjoying the novelty of a December walk wearing a light jacket or down vest as outdoor clothing.  We gloat over the cabbage and carrots and kale which we still harvest in the garden.
We have kicked off the quilts at night in the snug little house.
The cats trundle in and out through the open sliding door, they stretch on the sun-warmed concrete step as the afternoon sun slants across the bacl yard before disappearing behind the woods in a
glow of apricot and rose.
The stout boots, the wooly gloves and the thick sweaters are handy by if the weather turns.
The woodshed is stufffed with dry split chunks of maple and hickory.
The shelves in the basement are lined with canned goods, the freezer and kitchen cupboards are stocked.
If the cold days and nights come, as they surely will, we are ready.
Meanwhile, we enjoy the novelty of a green winter.


  1. What a lovely post, I so enjoyed reading about your Grampa Mac's Vermont winters. I share his suspicions of a green winter, we've had no real frosts yet and I'm a great believer in really cold winters being a good thing for killing off both germs and insect pests. There's time yet though:) And at least the birds and other wild creatures are having an easier time than they did last winter.

  2. We are experiencing much of the same weather here - Christmas day temperature was 13C which is getting towards a cold summers day. It made me feel that perhaps I shouldn't have invested all that money on winter tyres for the car, then a little voice came into my head saying "Let's just wait and see will we?"

    A lot of the tale of Grandparent generation rang true for over here too with my rural family needing to make sure that garden crops and local produce were eked out to preserve stocks and repairs maid in preparation for short days aand long nights.

    Love the photo's. That Willis is a wee star when there's a camera about!

    Happy New Year!

  3. What a nice post about getting ready for winter. I have to do a little of that today as it is going down to around 40 tonight, which is cold for us down here in s.e. FL.

    Have a wonderful 2012 and thank you for all of your interesting posts about farm life. I really enjoy them.


  4. Happy New Year ....Loved this post ...all the country thoughts on weather and work and the feeling of snugness in the 'green winter'...fancy still cutting kale ....I love the new tops best ...if I'm lucky, when the markets have them. Willis looked as though he was camouflaged in that shot of him.xx

  5. We are in a strange winter here in Nebraska, and I am going to bet that we will pay for it toward spring. It is supposed to get up around the mid 50's F by Wed or Thurs. We usually have -20 to -30 below zero about this time.
    I wish prosperous New Year to you and your family.
    I have enjoyed your blog friendship and your blog writing and will enjoy it throughout 2012.

  6. Great post Minion, I always enjoy your stories about your Grandpa Mac.
    We're having a green winter too but they're saying frost tonight and freezes for the next two days so I guess we're in for a change.
    My Grandparents had a farm too not getting electricity until the 60's and not having indoor plumbing until they moved to town.

  7. I did enjoy reading about Grampa Mac. I am a great admirer of the pioneer spirit. As my Granpa would say "We don't know we're born nowdays with all the mod cons we have now".
    When my Nan was first married they cooked over the open fire in their sitting room.
    Very mild here, we've just come home from the beach.

  8. A mild, green winter here as well. So far. As the one who has to trundle wheelbarrows of hay around the fields, I am not grumbling. Last winter, with sheet ice across the grass, it was treacherous for people and animals alike.

    I enjoyed your description of Grandpa Mac`s winters.

    I love the photo of Willis, camouflaged so beautifully in the dried twigs of catnip. A perfect place for him to hide!

  9. It's very mild here too. i wonder what Grampa Mac would make of your green winter? Treat it with great suspicion I expect! I loved reading that the reasons we "need" a cold winter are the same both sides of the pond . . .

    Now aren't you glad that Willis came to stay?

  10. You absolutely should write a book, Sharon! I so enjoyed reading about your Grandpa Mac. I remember those Kentucky seasons during the 7 years we were there. I loved Kentucky...