This morning, in Nome, Alaska, it’s 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Fairbanks is at 8, while in Skagway, Alaska, it’s 38 and raining. Meanwhile, where I’m writing from, Tunbridge, Vermont, the outside air temperature is minus 13. In this screwy climate change world of ours, I could go to Barrow, Alaska, deep inside the Arctic Circle, in January, where the sun never rises, and feel a little warmer (minus 2 there).
According to AccuWeather, we’re currently enduring a cold snap that’s as bad as anything in the last 100 years. Arctic blasts do hit Vermont. My brother, who once had a job measuring the water temperature of the White River at the Fish Hatchery in Stockbridge, vividly recalls February, 1979, when the thermometer never got above zero for thirteen days in a row. What makes our current stretch of very cold weather unusual is how early it is in the winter and how long it’s been cold.
It could be worse. In 1816, or “the famine year,” or “eighteen hundred and froze to death,” when there were killing frosts every month of summer and the crops failed and there was no hay to feed the livestock, Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote, “Nettles, wild turnips, hedgehogs, and other crude substitutes for ordinary fare kept all but a few of the human inhabitants from starvation, but the suffering was so intense that the year proved a vital factor in greatly increasing the emigration from Vermont to the lands of promise in the West.” Personally, I’d rather eat braised nettles on a bed of hedgehogs than live in the West with its promise of endless droughts and wildfires the size of New Hampshire.
As the thermometer drops, our moods change. Below zero, our personalities are more pronounced. There’s a Paul Bunyan effect that brings out the storytellers; mention it was 23 below at your house when you woke up at 6 am and the toppers will always report a colder reading at their house and an earlier rising hour, “48 below when I got up at 3:30,” they’ll say. There’s also a Jack London effect that bitterly embraces a downward spiral towards death and a frozen hell: “I’ve had it with this (expletive) place,” rings out from every valley in Vermont when a car won’t start, a pipe bursts, a furnace runs out of oil.
“If you maintain a positive attitude, you will adapt,” advises Shane Young, my neighbor who is a logger and a teamster. “How you dress is tricky; wool will save your life,” says Shane, talking about a problem few of us have—sweating from physical labor when it’s 10 below outside. The same goes for his draft horses, a pair of Suffolk Punches called “Nick” and “Hank.” They’ll get sweaty drawing logs so Shane keeps horse blankets ready to throw over them when they’re not pulling. We discuss how farm animals react to extreme cold. “I’ve seen chickens’ combs frozen off. I’ve seen ducks’ feet frozen off. Walk around with peg legs,” recalls Shane. Gary Mullen, my colleague on the Tunbridge select board, milks cows across the valley. On warm winter days, his cows will bask in the sun outside, contentedly chewing their cuds. When it’s below zero, the cows will last about an hour in the barnyard before they’ve had enough. “You open the barn door,” Gary says, “and you better get out of the way.” As if dairy farming isn’t hard enough, sub-zero dairy farming is one crisis after another. “Man, things get miserable,” reports Gary, an incorrigible optimist, adding, “One frozen turd will ruin your whole day.” This truism emerged from a story about yesterday’s broken gutter cleaner, which brought up the issue of technology. “When we didn’t have a gutter cleaner, cold weather wasn’t a problem,” pointed out Gary, who remembers shoveling all that manure by hand.
“I was rugged in those days,” says my neighbor, Kathleen Welch, nonagenarian, recalling her childhood, “The cold didn’t bother me.” She says she used to play outside in winter as much as she could because the alternative was doing chores inside, “the beds had to be made, dishes had to be washed, bedrooms swept.” What would she do outdoors? “My father made us a traverse sled. And we’d find some barrel staves and make jumpers.” Did they burn a lot of wood in a winter? “We must have because my brother and I had to keep the wood box full and that was a lot of work.” They had a kitchen stove and a stove in the parlor. Was it cold upstairs in your bedroom? “Oh, yes.” Could you see your breath? “Oh, yes.” How did you stay warm? “We had a lot of quilts. And I slept with my sister, Gladys. My brothers slept together in one bed, too. Nowadays, brothers won’t sleep with brothers and sisters won’t sleep with sisters.” Looking out the window at her bird feeder and the parade of chickadees, I see a giant thermometer reading nine below zero. “I can’t see it,” admits Kathleen, whose eyes aren’t what they used to be. “I loved snowshoeing,” she suddenly says, her eyes lighting up. “After the war, I got a pair. I’d go out for hours. I like to wander through the woods. But four or five years ago, I had to give it up because I couldn’t get anybody to go with me. I fell when I was alone and couldn’t get up for a long time.
” Next door, Shane Young’s daughter, Hannah, a fourth grader, just heard from her mother, Jena, that when school starts after the holidays, there may be no recess on account of the dangerous cold. “Mom, it’s not cold!” she protests. If you want to get through this effing arctic bullshit crap cold, be eight years-old.