'Dread 50 above more than 50 below'

February 11, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- In the night the cold settles about the house like a heavy liquid, seeping in at the cracks and occupying all the low places. To escape the cold that covers the floor, our thin-coated little terrier climbs onto the armchair by the wood stove, much like a flood victim taking to the roof of her house to avoid the rising waters. The stove, converting chunks of beech into hot air, acts like a sump pump. It can't make the cold go away, but it can keep the level down enough so that life in the house can go on.

After the lights are off, through the windows we can see the moonlight outside, brilliant on the snowy fields. Before going to bed I venture out for a few minutes, standing on the porch and feeling the moisture inside my nose beginning to freeze. I think of Jack London's story ''To Build a Fire.'' The night is weirdly quiet, except that from time to time there are mysterious cracking noises, the sounds of the cold.

Hours later I wake suddenly in the icy bedroom, light still pouring in from the full moon, and listen for the water pump in the cellar. If it starts it'll mean a pipe somewhere has burst. But all is quiet.

In the morning it is 6 below outside the house. It is 13 below at the barn, which is in a hollow, one of the coldest places on the farm. The night before I had brought some horses in, including the oldest ones. Their body heat has warmed the barn's interior to a toasty 20 degrees.

I have left one of our tractors connected to a Minnesota-type block heater, which uses large amounts of electricity but virtually guarantees that the engine will start in the morning. And so it does. Baltimore Gas & Electric, which no doubt thinks that every vehicle should have one of these gadgets, would be proud. The other tractors are hibernating, and I expect that it will take a change in the weather before I'll be able to rouse them.

When I go to feed the cows they get up stiffly and creak toward the hay. Their sides are silvery where vapor from their breath has frozen. The 10 calves we have so far seem fine; they don't know what warm weather is, anyway. None were born last night, fortunately -- although this still dry cold is less dangerous for them than freezing rain, or the chill that comes after a muddy thaw.

Puddle of ice

Just a week ago I'd gone out in the morning and discovered what I was sure was the corpse of a newborn calf. It was lying outside the shed, immersed in a shallow puddle with ice all around it. Its mother stared at it disconsolately. But when I grabbed its hind feet and dragged it out of the puddle I found to my astonishment that it was still alive.

We gave it a couple of bottles of warm milk, and by nightfall it was up and nursing on its own. I put cow and calf in their own snug little shed for a few days so that it would have a better chance in the world, and by the time the cold snap arrived it seemed well recovered from its chilly beginnings and likely to survive.

Farm animals handle cold amazingly well, and in a way I welcome it, too. Even when it's breaking pipes, turning diesel fuel to jelly, snapping cold-contracted fence wires, the deep frost is sanitizing the countryside. It kills parasites in the ground, keeps subtropical weeds like kudzu at bay.

We don't have an orchard, but at this time of year I often think of Robert Frost's advice to his. ''No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm;/ But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm./ . . . Keep cold, young orchard. Goodbye and keep cold./ Dread 50 above more than 50 below.''

Fruit farmers and furriers aren't the only ones who see the bright side of the bitter weather. Near the end of the cold spell this past week, my friend Bob Stine brought his iceboats up to the Bush River and took me for a ride.

The Bush, a shallow and protected fresh-water tributary of the Chesapeake, is said to be one of the best places for iceboating in the region, and the word was out that conditions were good. Even on a weekday, a dozen or more of the spidery little craft were zipping over the ice. ''A lot of sick people out here today,'' somebody said dryly.

The ice in the river was said to be four inches thick -- except here and there where there didn't seem to be any at all. Perfectly safe, everybody said, especially if you don't slow down.

In theory, an iceboat can reach a speed as much as three times that of the wind that's pushing it. Off Otter Point on the Bush, the cold south wind must have been gusting to 10 or 12 miles per hour, and we shot across the bumpy surface of the river as though jet-propelled. I'd probably call in sick, too, for the chance to do it again. But I don't expect that opportunity soon. That evening, walking a fence line at home, I could already smell March on the south wind.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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