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First Snow – 2014

January 5, 2014

Saturday January 3, 2014
A couple things were notable on the drive down to the farm today. For one, it was cold. Boston Harbor at Wollaston Beach was all iced up. But when the water came into view as I on got onto Atlantic Avenue in Cohasset, it looked downright scary. There was an ominous green/brown foam on water, probably pulverized kelp left over from the Northeaster of last night, and as one looked out toward Minot’s Light one saw breaking surf as far as the horizon. It was hard, for me at least, not to imagine how deadly the sea can be, and why most sailors in the North Atlantic never bothered to learn to swim. I’m sure it was a lot worse yesterday and last night.
When I got to the farm it was quiet. Aunt Jean was feeding the animals. They had weathered the storm and was glad that there had been no power outage and no frozen pipes. The cold, of course, means lighter snow and no ice to take down power lines. But it can also mean burst pipes. We’d hit the sweet spot: a different sort of perfect storm. I’d brought my snowshoes and took my sled out for the first time of the season. I had to dig out the door to the oxbarn, but with the powdery snow, that was a piece of cake. Snow had blown in the large gaps between the door and the frame, and had blown over the window high on the Western wall of the barn. That window was built open, as the oxen created all the heat they needed when they were housed there. My father tells me it was the pleasantest barn in the winter when it’s bovine residents were there, as their warmth and the smell of the hay they ate made the atmosphere inside a sort of permanent springtime. Even now, the door has a southern exposure and the sun shining nicely into the barn meant it was many degrees warmer inside than out. With most of my furniture stored away in the icehouse for the winter, and just an armchair and table in the ox barn, I could almost imagine I was in a cabin rather than a barn. So I pulled my sled down and attached the traces, threw my snowshoes on the sled and headed down the drive. When I got to the edge of Peck’s meadow, I put on the shoes and headed across the ox pasture into the woods. That takes me to one of my favorite spots on the farm in the winter. It is a path that runs along with the salt marsh visible through the trees only when the leaves are gone, and a large ledge outcropping to the left that gets covered in ice and icicles. When it is sunny, as it was today, the snow and ice have a magical aspect. Though, I must admit, pulling the sled today and in my snowshoes, I was mostly looking down to avoid tripping. The trail takes me up to the Hunt “Field”. Field it once was, but now it is a grove of tightly spaced saplings from one to four inches in diameter at the base from which I collect the bulk of my straight stock. When I first started I worried that I might pull out to much to be sustainable, but now I realize the danger is that I won’t be able to keep up and the saplings will all turn into trees too large for my purposes. Today I cut down about twelve to fifteen saplings and cut off most of the small branches and cut them more or less in half before tying them down to my sled. This left me pulling twenty something twigs about ten feet long. It probably weighed one hundred pounds or so. The snow was so fluffy that I took off my snowshoes for the walk back as I was sure they would just get in the way. (Pulling the empty sled, I sank half a foot into the snow, even with the snowshoes on.) The pull back was tiring. Every time I stopped I marveled at the thought of those Antarctic explorers pulling their massive sleds across snow so cold that the runners didn’t run. But it was fine out there. That was the other notable thing about the day – it was really quiet. I didn’t hear the usual summer noises, like traffic, or planes, or construction, or chain saws, or lawn mowers. I didn’t hear winter noises either, like kids sledding, or tires spinning, or planes, or snow blowers. I just heard the sound of my breath, and the shriek of a red tailed hawk out looking for a snack. I did see some prints in the snow. There were rabbits, and small birds (even the tracks of a tuft of grass blown about by the wind registered in the unblemished snow). A mid-sized canine (dog, fox, coyote?) left behind a loping trail for me to see. But there were no other human tracks. I was first explorer in these woods since this storm. Another sound I did hear was one of the loveliest that a winterscape can offer. It was the trickle of a brook running under the ice. It has a special sound slightly different from a brook in summer – a special musical quality.

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With my fully loaded sled, I was forced to stop to rest several times on my return to the barnyard. When I got back I stacked most of the wood up against the metal stanchions in the bar. These uprights are spaced with two bars about a foot apart and then a gap of four feet or so. The oxen were held in place by means of a metal yoke with metal chain attached at the top and bottom to allow the animals some movement. The chained yokes are gone and now the bars are just two close then larger gap and then two close again. As an experiment (which I will photograph next time.) I have placed some twigs between the close uprights and then pulled the remaining free end of the branches back again so that the wood is “woven” between the bars. I am hoping it will dry in a shape useful for making chairs that have a more comfortably angled back, and that I will have a bunch of pieces with uniform angles. I’ll keep you apprised.
The weather forecast over the next few days is crazy. Tomorrow it is supposed to be in the 30’s and rainy. Monday is forecast to be around 50 degrees. And after that temps are predicted to go back to the teens and twenties. I don’t know if there will be snow around next week or if it will be too icy to do anything. So we’ll do what folks have been doing forever, see what comes and play it by ear. Let’s just hope it is quiet enough that we can hear and appreciate the sound.

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