Sunny gifts on a wintry day

The cows were stretched out as if they were summer vacationers dozing on a beach.

We can't live through February by our woodstove alone. Oh, it radiates wonderful heat within its cradle of influence - a lulling, penetrative heat that no central gas or electric furnace can hold a candle to. But when we move far from its aura - to the next room, say - that deep, bone-kneading warmth slips away like a dropped comforter. Then we have to stoke our own furnaces by keeping active.

When the wind is calm and sun is shining, no matter how cold it is, the best place to keep warm away from the stove is at work outside. Yesterday, as the temperature struggled up from single digits into the teens, Charlie drove the pickup down the west field to fell some dead trees and cut them into firewood. I headed to the barn to break the ice in the water tank, haul the bagged leaves I'd collected inside as fresh bedding for the cows, and to check on the animals.

By the time I joined Charlie 20 minutes later to help him load wood, we were both pleasantly warm - and we weren't the only ones defying the thermostat. Our three dogs leapt about us in mock battle, their breath billowing ragged bursts of energetic steam. Like us, they needed to keep moving to keep warm, and they were putting us to shame at it.

The larger animals, as I'd just seen, needed no more than the sun to take the chill off. Move? The draft horses might have forgotten how. I'd found the three of them outside their open-backed stalls standing stock still in the sun. Despite the frost about their muzzles, they seemed to be in zen-like states of repose reminiscent of our own woodstove reveries.

Later, the setting sun would linger in the soft, downy hairs along the underside of the Belgians' thick necks; now, at midday, it bore down on their broad backs like a huge, beneficent hand. Ben, a Percheron, looked as if he might be hot to the touch, a stolid black radiator on hooves.

But where were the cows? I'd expected to find them milling about the feeding racks, finishing the scraps of hay from their morning feeding, but they'd vacated the barn.

I clumped over the frozen ground and turned the corner past the outdoor workshop and lumber shed, and there they were, resting - luxuriating even - on a rise of bare, smoothly packed dirt along the protected south wall of the building, where a row of windows reflected back a good bit of the sun's warmth. Nine heads pointed skyward, eyes half-closed against the glare. Madge rested her slowly working jaw on Margy's back. Instead of tucking their legs under their bodies for warmth, they'd stretched out their limbs as if for a complete tan.

Bernadette's right knee gently flexed as if to showcase a slender lower leg and broad cloven hoof. Nellie, big with calf, lay half on her side, exposing her belly to the rays. Not one cow moved a muscle below her rhythmically grinding jaws. They might have been summer vacationers dozing on a beach.

As I passed, a few blinked and regarded me with mild, bemused interest. I thought again of a beach, and how odd it would be to look up from one's towel at a fully clothed, bundled up intruder, casting an unwelcome shadow. I turned back to take in their view - the quiet swells of the farm, white-capped with wisps of snow lingering from the dusting we'd gotten earlier in the week. For a moment, I could actually imagine lying down, listening to the wave-lap of the summer Atlantic.

Alas, when the temperatures are well below freezing, such visions go only so far. I walked briskly to the pile of logs Charlie had sawn up, and together, we loaded the pickup. Back at the house we each carried in an armload for the woodstove. We reclaimed our easy chairs, pulled close to its quietly popping warmth. The three dogs jockeyed for position on the small sofa. And for another month or two this is the sun we'll turn to at rest - until the one outside grows strong enough for mere mortals and mutts.

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