Enthusiasm for Winter Bubbles Over

January 08, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Wednesday night, while official Washington was nervously observing the ascension of the Newt, I walked to the barn in the deepening cold.

It was the first real winter night we've had, and the still, oxygen-rich air was exhilarating. Overhead sparkled a true winter sky, planetarium-clear.

The Big Dipper, which I associate with summer, was nowhere to be seen; it appears overhead at this season just before sunrise, when we tend to be sleepy and less inclined to look up. In its place was Orion.

As Orion strode past his three-star belt glittered, and you could almost hear his sword rattle. The belt points north to the reddish star Aldebaran, and to the Pleiades. Aldebaran is in the constellation Taurus. Seeing it reminded me that soon I'll have to buy a new bull.

A crescent moon was sliding down the sky in the west, nearing the woods where we've seen wild turkeys of late. It looked exactly like the smile of the Cheshire Cat. There was no wind, but a wisp of woodsmoke touched my nostrils and went away. On the frozen mud of the lane my boots rapped crisply, as though on asphalt.

Hearing my footsteps, or perhaps sensing the passage of the dog, who took a shortcut through her field, the blind mare shifted from foot to foot in her shed. But she didn't come out. Blind or not, she knows when it's night, and has learned not to expect more hay until morning.

In the barn when I turned on the lights the orange cat came out of the feedroom and stretched. His full name is The Big Fat Butterfat Cat, and he doesn't do much to earn his living. He knows how to catch mice but seldom does, perhaps for religious reasons.

He suggested I give him some catfood. Unlike the blind mare he is an idealist, and allows hope to triumph over experience. But he would have to wait until morning, too. It's for your own good, I told him.

I gave hay and water to the two horses overnighting in the barn, and for some reason paused to flip through the 1994 barn journal, which I hadn't gotten around to filing after I started the new one for 1995. That was a sobering thing to do.

Every year about this time my enthusiasm for winter bubbles over. A few clear moonlit nights, or a pretty snowstorm, and I feel a rush of gratitude that I don't live in Florida. Often in early January I emit an appreciative column about the season. The 1994 journal reminded me that I oughtn't to do this hastily.

Last January 16th, according to my scrawled notes, it was 2 degrees in the early morning. ''All frozen up. No diesel tractors start.'' By the 19th it was 10 below. One of the horses I board had the shivers and I brought him in for the night. The water in the field where the heifers were froze, and I had to move them.

On the 21st it flooded. On the 23rd, ''thawing but very slippery.'' The appearance of a kill deer in the bottom field provided a false sense of hope. On the 28th it flooded again, then froze. In early February fresh snow made the fields safer for the livestock, but on February 8 ''sleet began in mid-morning and made travel impossible.'' The killdeer was long gone.

The journal doesn't say how long the snow and ice lasted, because I got tired of writing about it, but I believe there was still ice on the north side of our big bank barn into April.

So the worst is probably still ahead. Experience suggests to me, if not to the orange cat, that we shouldn't let hope get out of hand. Winter continues to deepen. The pond has frozen despite the best efforts of the Canada geese to keep a hole in it open. Cold-weather birds are arriving in great numbers at the feeder.

And when my father, on the morning of his 82nd birthday, got into the car with my stepmother and took off for Florida, I got out my insulated coveralls for the first time since last March. He's known around here as something of a weather prophet, and usually after he heads south, we get clobbered.

But hope doesn't always surrender easily to experience. Some winters, February and even January are as mild as November. Already the days are growing longer, and I notice that. Besides, there's plenty of firewood in the shed and hay in the barn, which makes it easier to wait the season out with equanimity.

As I walked back to the house on Newt's big night I stopped on a little hill and took a last look at the sky. The Cheshire Cat moon had fallen into the woods, but Orion still marched. Southwest of me, in the direction of Bel Air and Baltimore, a dull glow -- light pollution, I think it's called these days -- overpowered the stars.

To the north, though, little Polaris and the other stars were clear. In a few more hours, Orion's rounds would have taken him out of sight and the Dipper would be up there in the morning sky, waiting for dawn. I don't know Newt's position, but I'd say that at least for star-gazing, north is best.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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