Life Trots Out Its Checks and Balances

January 20, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- On Monday, one Marylander was up earlier than usual, mumbling to himself about the weather. It was very cold, and snow was predicted. In Los Angeles, where the weather has been beautiful, it was about 2:30 a.m., and most people were sleeping peacefully.

The Marylander, who is usually at peace with winter but had been getting increasingly out of patience with it over the past few days, made his mug of tea and looked out the kitchen window at the thermometer. It showed almost 20 degrees, which was encouraging. The morning before at the same time it had been 4.

From the window he could also see the tractor. The day before it had taken him hours to get it started, a process that had involved a portable generator, a block heater, a battery charger, and a certain amount of colorful language.

So this morning it was connected to the house by a pair of orange extension cords. If it didn't start today he'd be in a pickle, because there was a lot to do and not much time to do it in.

After breakfast he climbed into his heavy coveralls and went outside to stare at the tractor. All right, sweetheart, he thought. No excuses this morning. No headaches. Let's just do it. And when he turned the key off she went, the Mexican-built diesel starting with a roar and a belch of black smoke, then settling down to a rhythmic NAFTANAFTANAFTANAFTA. Gracias, hijita, he thought. Maybe the day would be all right.

He drove the tractor to the barn and let it idle while he went about the morning feeding. It was still dark, darker than it should be at that hour. In Los Angeles it was almost 4 a.m.

He finished with the horses and went out, with the tractor, to the cows. They had been outside all winter, rain or shine, and even though he was in a hurry he noticed how well they looked -- sleek coats, bright eyes, not too fat and not too thin, ready to start dropping calves in a few more weeks. He supposed they might miss the warmer weather.

They almost certainly missed the taste of fresh grass. But on the other hand the winter is free of flies, and that must come as a relief to a cow. It does to a cow's owner, anyway.

There was a big shed in the cows' field, but no room for them in it. It was full of hay, and had a strand of electric fence around it. A little later in the winter he'd move them to another field with a big empty shed, but he usually put that off until the first calf was imminent. Right now, though, they were more interested in food than shelter.

With the front-end loader on the tractor, he could reach right over the electric fence into the shed, pick up a 600-pound bale, and back out with it. The cows watched the procedure closely. Just as he backed out with the first bale, the snow started falling. ''Damn it,'' he said, and pulled up the hood of his coveralls. In Los Angeles, it was exactly 4:31 a.m.

He put the big round bale down on the hillside, got off the tractor, and cut the twine that wrapped it. Then he gave it a push and off it went down the hill through the snow, unwinding like a huge roll of toilet paper. The cows followed it eagerly, as well they might. It was high-quality hay, pale green and fragrant.

By this time, the snow was coming down hard. On the backs of the cows there was already a thick coating. He got two more big bales out of the shed and put them under cover nearer the barn, where they'd be easy to get to if the weather turned terrible.

Then he parked the tractor and went home to fill the bird feeder and see about a cup of coffee. In Los Angeles, the damage had already been done. While the cows on the steep Maryland hillside nosed into their hay, freeways and apartment houses were collapsing in the West Coast night.

Through the snowy morning, the Marylander worked on. As always, there was plenty to do simply coping with winter, and once one chore was finished there'd be another one until the day was gone. This day, though, seemed fairly tranquil, perhaps because it was a little warmer.

The day before, when it had been bright and clear and about 10 degrees, had gone at a much faster pace. There had been one cold-related problem after another, and in the afternoon he had kept looking over his shoulder at the sun dropping implacably toward the woods and wondering if he'd get it all done before dark. He didn't, of course, but by nightfall he felt that at least he'd made the most of the day, and slept that night as though he'd been hit with a crowbar.

This day, the snowy Monday, was a little different. The snow turned to rain in the afternoon, which threatened to flood the garage. He felt sorry for the cows, and decided to move them soon to the field with the empty shed.

At home he built up the fire in the wood stove, discussed with the kids the likelihood that there would be no school the next day, and watched the news.

Los Angeles, it appeared, had had a much more momentous day. Life had once again trotted out its checks and balances. Maryland winters can be onerous, and its summers hot and humid, but the springs and falls offset all that.

In California, they say, the climate is perfect all year round.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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