When the weather is lah-de-dah

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The snow had begun in the gloaming, Changing to rain in the night - Leaving the fields and the highway Slush-slush in the morning light.

This was on the third of December, and that's no way to commence a rugged Maine winter. For Maine, last fall was lah-de-dah, and just before that snow-fizzle made up we watched a gray old blue heron standing hip deep in the slackening tide of Back River. He should have winged to South America long ago lest he be cut off by one of our traditional late-summer blizzards. Summer, this past year, was on the 6th and 7th of July, but something happened and balmy days have lingered. Same day we watched the heron I had a dandelion in bloom by the shop door, and my neighbor's bees were working it like mosquitoes at a Boy Scout camporee.

In a climatic context, there will probably be no complaints. You don't have to shovel rain, and blue herons go with shirt-sleeve days. But whatever is this going to do to the literary, if mythological, aspects of the standby Maine winter on which we rely? How are we going to make-do when our winters make like Guatemala? When the summer complaints return with the robins in the spring, what shall we tell them about our desolate existence here on the fringe of frigidity, where hot mince pies come out of the oven frozen solid? Not one of them is ever going to believe we had blue herons and dandelions for Christmas.

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It was far better when we had something to brag about: ''Snowed? I guess it snowed. Why, I started for the barn with two empty milk pails, and I had to dump 'em out three times on the way.''

Something like that holds its own. If there appears some symptom of incredulity, all we have to do is add, ''And that was before the wind breezed up.''

''Yessir-ree-bob - we really had a tough one. Back in January we was marooned for a week. Snow clogged up the windmill fans so the pump couldn't run, and we was without water. Had to feed the cows snowballs. Poor things shivered so the barn shook. We dug down and got the windmill working, and then it come off cold. It was on the Tuesday, seems to me, that we couldn't blow out the lamp. Flame was so stiff we had to break it off. Now that I think about it, that was Wednesday.''

(There is a narrative purpose there - if the tourist seems to doubt the veracity of the stated facts, his attention can be diverted by, ''No, I'm wrong - it was Tuesday.'')

I will be honest - Maine has had some heavy winters, but I think never quite so heavy as the native raconteurs invent. Starting with a plausible and even probable fundamental, the technique calls for an artistic embellishment. This explains why our town of Pittsfield was always the coldest place in the world. For some reason nobody has ever thought to explain, the poor farm at Pittsfield had three thermometers on the back porch. Not too often, but when things seemed appropriate, somebody from Pittsfield would telephone the Associated Press bureau in Bangor and report the ''composite'' Pittsfield temperature - if things dropped to 15 below zero, the Pittsfield poor-farm total would be -45. Not cued, ever, to whimsy and pleasantries, the Associated Press occasionally cooperated, and that - it seems to me - is what it's all about.

Those cows that ate snowballs. Didn't I tell you they gave ice cream right through June?

I suppose much of this Maine winter lore goes back to the lumbering days when men sat around because there was nothing else to do, and thought things up. The famous ''year of the two winters'' was Maine legend long before Paul Bunyan was invented, and Paul merely appropriated it along with so many other ''stretchers.'' That year, it began to freeze up in the fall before it finished thawing out in the spring. That was the year we had a ''flash summer.'' Lonnie Merithew was putting up some hooks in a bedroom closet and he missed it altogether.

If things ever return to normal, I'll report immediately.

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