Utter silence

SHE was occupied with Theophrastus and I was numb in the contemplation of about-to-turn-in, and it was a deep, dark, cold, winter's night, and she looked up to say, ``It's quiet as down sulla!'' And it was even so. Such nights produce little activity in our remoter periphery, and the double windows are tight all around. She had reached back many years for her simile - to the old days on the farm when the cellar was our storehouse that would keep us fed through the long and lean Maine winter. So we sat in modern comfort for a moment and reflected on ``down sulla,'' the quietest place in all the world. There was no ``central heat'' in those times, and when central heat did appear, the language had no subtleties and the contrivance was called a furnace. There was an era in Maine affairs when a furnace was news, and the local weekly newspaper would say, ``Bill Ringrose has put in a furnace; Butler Plumbing did the job.'' (Butler advertised regularly, hence this courtesy.)

The first furnaces burned wood, but after coal grates were installed, a cellar needed a coal bin. Pioneer days were gone. The plain agricultural fact is that vegetables will not ``keep'' in a heated cellar, so the furnace doomed the farmhouse as Maine had known it. When we built our fine new home in 1947, we made a cellar under the main house with a furnace, but under the long ell we put a separate, heatless cellar for our apples and potatoes and other garden goodies that needed protection from frost but would shrivel if exposed to a furnace.

Back before furnaces, the farmer made his cellar ready for winter by ``banking'' the foundation. After the fruits and vegetables were stored, he would take an ax to the wood lot and fetch home fir boughs enough to lay them interlaced all around, ground up to floor timbers, with extra coverage over windows and bulkhead. Likely he would save the trunks of the fir trees for fence posts next spring. Snow, when it came, would filter into the boughs to seal everything with a protective shield, and usually the farmer would add more snow with a shovel. Thus banked, a house would have a warm cellar with no need for inside heat. And the banking that kept out the cold also kept out the world and its sounds.

In those days farmhouses didn't get ``het'' all over. A parlor would have a small ``airtight'' to light if company came to ``set,'' but otherwise the kitchen range was in complete charge. I was in college before I had heat in my bedroom. Bathroom? Well, there might be an oil heater to oblige the fastidious, but the trick was to catch your bath by the kitchen range when you had the place to yourself. And put cold water in the reservoir every time you take out some hot. But a floor, even if mostly cold, over the insulated cellar, was enough to protect the veggies, and they would diminish as they lingered, keeping well enough through the winter until the banking was removed in April and the bulkhead opened to refresh.

The air down cellar, once the banking was in place, became flat, stale, and unprofitable. This had no bad effect on the apples and turnips, but the apples and turnips, and all else, contributed abundant flavor to the stale air. I can, indeed, smell it now, but our language lacks the means of describing it. The flavor was a combination of Bellflowers and Baldwins, salt-slacked cucumber pickles, Hubbard squash, Green Mountain potatoes, P-I Swede turnips, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, winter pears, carrots and beets, and the murky, dismal, damp of the dirt floor.

There was no light switch at the head of the old stairs in the kitchen, so a lantern would be carried by anybody going below to fetch produce. By mid-January, the cellar air was so abundantly stale that a lantern - or a lamp - would soon burn itself out for want of oxygen, and many's the time the lady of the house would grope her way up to the kitchen - her apron caught up to carry the potatoes for supper.

And there was the silence - utter silence - down there. Nothing from the cold outside penetrated, and nothing from above came down. Besides, that inert and stagnant cellar air, so loaded with flavor, wouldn't vibrate for anything this side of the trump of doom.

Another thing - those farm cellars had less and less space each winter for vibrations. Every potato and carrot and beet and turnip that came in from the garden brought its speck of soil, and after 50 years or so the floor would be that much closer to the floor above. My grandfather, to have any room at all, had to dig four wagonloads of cellar floor and carry it out in baskets.

``Quiet as down sulla,'' she'd said, and I well knew the allusion. I went to bed wishing I had a Bellflower apple - it's been some time. Finest kind.

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