After a relatively balmy December, temperatures hovered right around zero degrees F. on Jan. 1, and dipped to 5 below zero on the 3rd, a respectable reading for south-central Indiana a few ticks into a new year. When I went to feed the cows at first light, I found the seven of them bunched in the barn, muzzles hoary with their own frozen breath, eyes calm and expectant in the equally still air. It was a moment to savor.
I went through the motions of a real winter morning's feeding with a tinge of melancholy, knowing the coming weekend would bring the thermostat back to almost springlike heights, turn the firm frozen ground to mush again, and usher in rain rather than bright, cleansing snow. It's a forecast I find unsettling.
Aside from the specter of global warming, which has made its presence known in myriad ways about the farm (where is the hard lake ice and maple syrup of yesteryear?), I feel a keen sense of loss when winter doesn't live up to my expectations. True, these were born of an upstate New York childhood, but my first year in this more southerly locale delivered up a prodigious blizzard. My mother, dealing with her own drifts in Rochester, may not have been impressed, but Bloomington was – Indiana University and local grammar and high schools shut down for days that winter of 1976.
There have been a number of exceptions, but, overall, winters have become progressively less wild and woolly ever since.
These days, whenever winter makes a statement, I make the most of it. The first order of business is to chop through the ice thickly crusting the water tank, giving the animals burbling access to a drink that only they (or most of us in mid-July) could relish. After spreading extra hay in the racks, I come back up to the house, heeding each crunching step, to feed the wood stove. Its radiant warmth is spectacular when arctic air is just a frosted pane away.
Yesterday, with a hard freeze still gripping the area, I walked back to check on the two draft horses, who hadn't come up for hay. Why bother when they have such big hooves and the snow is so thin? I found Ben and Buck pawing through the powder and pulling up still palatable grass without a care in the world. Slipping off my gloves, I buried my fingers in Ben's black coat for warmth and watched the leisurely grinding of his jaws. Had the horse no respect for true January weather?
Walking on, I came across places the pair had lain and rolled, leaving Percheron and Belgian-size snow angels – another sign the animals aren't taking winter very seriously. Perhaps deep down they know the cold spell doesn't have the staying power it used to.
Sure enough, when I emptied the ashes from the wood stove the next morning, I stepped out in slippers and bathrobe to a clear, starry predawn markedly warmer than the last. Even the cows quit the barn after a sniff at the morning hay to wend their way streamward and on up the pasture hill.
January will probably deliver more winter weather; February has the potential to oblige, as well. But neither can be counted on to freeze over the lake, send its geese south, or, so far at least, turn a horse's thoughts to shelter. Maybe that's what I miss most.