With family away, life during a cold snap is distilled to the pleasure of chores, the warmth of cats, and a ski trek across the land.
By Ben Hewitt
Oct 24 2018
At 3 in the afternoon of what is nearly the last day of the year, I step outside and strap on my cross-country skis. The temperature is two degrees below zero, and though the light has already begun its tilt toward darkness, it retains the startling clarity of deep cold. It’s as if temperature is not merely numbers on a thermometer but also an actual substance that, as subtracted degree by degree, brings previously unseen details into sharp relief: the coarse bark of the lanky black cherry perched at the height of the pasture knoll, for instance. Or the snow-weighted boughs of the spruce in the copse behind the garden. Even sound seems to be clearer, more resonant. From an improbable distance, I can hear the cows shifting in their paddock.
We are in the midst of the deepest and longest cold snap in memory, and my family has taken their leave, having embarked on an end-of-year deer hunting trip to North Carolina. Because the budget for the 10-day trip is $200, including gas, my wife, Penny, has packed every cranny of the car with food. There are bags of homemade beef jerky and jars of sauerkraut. A cooler with a whole chicken, four pounds of hamburger, and a generous slab of bacon that just came out of the smoke shack. They will stay in a wall tent heated by a portable woodstove, and everyone is a little shocked to see that nighttime temperatures in the area they’re visiting are predicted to fall into the teens. In some regards, the trip is a reward for my son Rye’s persistence during Vermont’s bow and rifle seasons, during which he spent more than 80 hours in the woods and not once was blessed by the presence of a legal animal. But it’s also simply because this is what my family likes to do.
In truth, I am happy for the time alone. It provides opportunity to read and reflect, to ski whenever I wish, and to work on the house unimpeded. I plan to tile the mudroom floor in their absence, a task that would be nearly impossible with the typically frenetic comings and goings of three others. And the truth is, I’m not really alone: There are the cats, Huck and Winslow, siblings that have become by far the most expensive “free” gift we ever got the boys. Over the six years since they came into our home, we’ve spent thousands on their care and feeding, including the extraction of numerous rotten teeth for Winslow that has left him with a two-toothed maw and the unfortunate nickname “Gummy.” (Before you feel too sorry for Winslow’s loss, please know that I lost plenty on the deal, too: The extractions cost a cool $700.)
Now, with my family away and the cold bearing down, the cats settle on the couch with me in the evenings as I read or watch a movie, and all the money spent on their upkeep seems a particularly sound investment. In these moments, I don’t even begrudge Gummy’s deficient mouth.
And then there are the livestock: the three cows (Apple, Pip, and Frodo), the pair of pigs (forever to remain nameless), the flock of laying hens (ditto), and Rye’s trio of goats (Flora, Boy, and, naturally, Goat). One of the things I love about working animals is their apparent acceptance of circumstance. Sure, the cows will bellow if I’m tardy with their ration of hay, but when it comes to the weather—be it hot, humid, rainy, sleeting, or just plain cold—stoicism reigns. Unlike the humans I encounter, the critters make no complaints; they simply go about their days, the snow gathering on their backs, the whiskers of their muzzles glinty with frost.
The cold presents certain challenges for me. Foremost is ensuring the animals have access to water. Because we do not have tank heaters, this means frequent rounds to break the ice that has formed since my last pass. I do what I can to compel everyone to drink in the immediate aftermath of these efforts, but if you’re wondering how one compels a chicken to drink, the only honest answer is, one doesn’t. It doesn’t work with the cows, either—or for that matter, the goats or the pigs. This means all my cajoling (“Water for ya, water for ya, come drink, come drink!”) serves exactly zero purpose except for me to hear the ringing of my own voice in the frigid air. Which, given my current lack of human companionship, proves more gratifying than usual.
So, from morning chores at dawn until just before bed, every three hours or so I walk the well-trod paths from pen to pen. In the larger troughs, such as those for the cows and pigs, I stomp through the ice with booted foot, then excavate the chunks with bare hands so as not to wet my gloves. The smaller troughs of the goats and chickens are thumped against the ground until the ice crumbles. I refill them with a five-gallon bucket of water drawn from one of the two frost-free hydrants I installed when we were building two summers ago. I love frost-free hydrants: To me, they are emblematic of the best of human ingenuity, elegant in design, and, unless you back your equipment trailer over one, relatively foolproof. (Not that I’ve ever done anything of the sort, mind you. Nope. Never.)
In the early mornings, after I’ve distributed hay and water and grain, I halter Pip to our chosen fence post and milk her by hand. I go as fast as I can, stopping occasionally to warm my fingers in the crease of her leg and lower belly, and I remember how when my son Fin was 4 or 5 he would accompany me to the barn on cold mornings, and how he would delightedly stick his small hands into that same furred crease—not so much because his hands were cold, I think (he’d actually remove his mittens expressly for the purpose), but rather for the simple pleasure and novelty of it. He called it her “armpit.”
I finish milking, unhalter Pip, and carry the full bucket across snow that squeaks beneath my boots. The cats are waiting for me at the front door, one on either side: Gummy the early riser to be let in, Huck the late riser to be let out.
It was 15 below when I started chores, but the sun has cleared the tree line, and in the intervening 40 minutes, the temperature has risen a full eight degrees. Seven below zero, yet—excepting my regloved fingertips, which tingle with returning blood—I do not feel the cold. And in this moment, with a warm house awaiting me, and a full three hours before I’ll need to make my rounds again, I realize something as suddenly, startlingly clear as the cold itself: I’m actually grateful for this weather. Grateful for the clarity of the air, for the cold-hot sensations in my cheeks and fingers, for the way it brings my attention to the small moments and movements of my day. You don’t daydream at 15 below.
There’s something about deep cold—maybe it’s just survival instinct, or maybe it’s an extension of the visual and auditory clarity, or most likely it’s both—that strips away the superfluous, that brings the mind into focus. It is the privilege of one with a tight, well-built house and an ample woodpile to feel this way, and understanding this only makes me appreciate the cold all the more. For how often am I reminded to be thankful for the good fortune that I habitually take for granted? The answer, of course, is not often enough.
I open the door to the house with my free hand, and the cats trade places in their darting way. I step into the warm cocoon of our simple home. I can hear the fire, the ticking of the logs releasing heat, the simmering of the kettle, and I decide that later, no matter how cold it is, I’m going for a ski.
And as you already know, I do.