Up here, it's good and cold

Firs crackle, snow crunches underfoot - and the dogs won't go out. Still, I love this weather.

Even the dogs won't go outside. Gus, the big black retriever, will at least point his nose into the wind on the back porch and give a sniff, but little brown Ivy just turns tail and trots back to the sofa by the wood stove. It is cold enough to require new language for cold. The television weather commentators are scrambling for new metaphors. The old figures of speech are too warm. We are in a metaphor inversion: it is burning cold.

It's also time to complain about the roads, now that the cold is heaving the tarmac at the usual culverts, with a few new spots for good measure. The ride to work is a 30-mile endurance test of front-end jouncing and obstacle alerts. It's worse being a passenger. "Watch out!" I cry, as my daughter navigates the road to school, and we brace and catch our breath for another hard bump to the undercarriage along this minefield.

Nonetheless, I love this arctic spell. The fir trees crackle, the walk to the car is crunchy underfoot, and puffs of powdery snow explode off the stone walls as they are gusted by rogue winds. I'll stand out front by the firewood chopping block and suck in hard just to feel my nostrils clinch and the air singe my cheeks. The moon will be full tonight, and the cedars will do an eerie shadow dance on the alabaster fields at midnight. Back on the knoll, deep in the woods, 2 o'clock in the morning will feel like a Taj Mahal of cold, white silence.

It used to get much colder. There are men and women living on this peninsula in Penobscot Bay who remember when the salt water froze over and you could drive a car from Castine to Belfast - seven miles across the ice, versus 35 miles via the Waldo County bridge. Now that must have been cold.

This week's slushy ice floe in Smith Cove, across from Eaton's boatyard - even Kenny Eaton couldn't remember ever having seen that - still pales by comparison.

The fact that the bay hasn't frozen in a great-grandfather's while is a bit troubling, considering the portents of global warming. Could such climatic change have occurred within living memory? In Castine, cold used to be a business. Don Colson, the local newscaster, remembers when his father cut blocks of ice out of the town reservoirs and slid them down Main Street to the ice house. We're one generation away from original refrigeration.

In the age of sail, Castine ice went to the Caribbean, China, and India. Castine ice made the rajah's sherbet. Castine exported the very concept of ice to the tropics. Cold was a valuable commodity, and we were blessed with an abundant supply.

We've gotten soft. Aside from the loss of an ice livelihood, we don't have to struggle against the elements. We don't break the ice on the well with an ax, or haul water to the horses. We don't have to keep the kindling box full lest the cold get the better of us in the night, although I'll need to haul a few more trees out of the woods tomorrow and replenish the log pile.

Our cold spell has made a certain kind of harvest possible: lumber. I've waited for the ground to freeze this hard before driving my tractor across it to skid trees out to the field where I can cut them and split them for firewood. My field tires will make tracks in the snow, but by spring there will be little trace of this mechanized incursion. Robert Frost said, "In winter in the woods against the trees I go." The depth of this frost in the ground allows me to tread lightly. If the tractor will start, that is.

And as hard and lifeless as it seems at the surface, I know that not too many inches below the snow things are moving. There is always a layer of activity down in the dark soil. From nests deep beneath my log piles, or among the tree roots, moles and mice surface to a seed stash - we see their tracks skittering across the leach field - the unwary potential prey to cats, hawks, or coyotes.

Water still moves sideways through the earth, as our sump pump indicates when it whirs every so often to keep the foundation dry.

Skunks and owls are mating; the does browsing our cedars are slow with spring fawns, and drag their hind legs in the deep drifts.

Most significantly, catalogs arrive in the mail tantalizing torpid gardeners with beefy tomatoes, strawberry plants, or monster pumpkins. My mind turns to the lupine seeds I scattered about the field and clearings last fall. Without a hard freeze we won't have new flowers! It's good and cold, auguring robust purple flowers in July.

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