musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

easy wind and downy flake...

Toronto hasn't seen much snow this winter – yet. But the monster blizzard that battered the east coast this past weekend has me reminiscing about past winters and life in simpler times.

Not that there was ever anything "simple" about enduring massive snowfalls, ice storms, and power outages. But I can't help wondering if our always-connected, always turned on twenty-first century life means we have a harder time coping when the inevitable happens. And then I wonder . . . what if the grid goes down and stays down? Zombie apocalypse, anyone?

Back in my hippy-back-to-the-land days of the 1970s and 80s, my husband and I and our three young sons lived in a rented farm house with several acres of land and a ramshackle barn. We moved to our farm on a snowy day at the end of December in 1975. I'll never forget arriving there with our overloaded camper van, and several carloads of city-folk friends to find the long gravel driveway completely drifted in. Hubby made a run at it with the van and, by some miracle, managed to stay on the track. After a few more runs, he'd cleared enough of a path for the rest of the convoy to follow. Our friends unloaded their vehicles in record fast time and beat a hasty retreat to the city, no doubt convinced we'd lost our minds. There were times, during that first challenging winter, when I wondered if they might be right.

A cranky old octopus of an oil furnace lurked in the cellar where it struggled to deliver heat to the first floor. Upstairs bedrooms were always cold but we piled on extra blankets and told ourselves the bracingly fresh air that gusted through our ancient sash windows made for healthy sleeping. (In fact, it probably saved our lives. I'm sure that furnace was pumping out clouds of carbon monoxide along with its meagre heat.)

We installed a massive cast-iron stove before our second winter on the farm, partly for the ambiance of a wood fire but mostly because we weren't sure the old furnace would see us through another season. We were right about that. For the next sixteen years, we relied on a Fisher stove like this one to keep us warm – hard work, sometimes, but worth it.

In late summer, a truck would deliver seven bush cords of wood, dumping it unceremoniously at the end of the driveway. We (and by "we" I mean mostly hubby) became skilled at splitting logs into manageable chunks, obsessive about hunting down kindling – fallen cedar branches from the neighbour's woodlot were best – and expert at stacking the split cords in neat, shoulder-high rows to dry. Our sons still grumble about the brutal Two Load Rule: each boy had to carry two big armloads of firewood into the house before settling down to their after school snacks. The rule applied equally to me and their Dad, of course, but the child labour angle makes for better stories, all of them starting, "Why, when I was a boy . . ." The care and feeding of that wood stove became the stuff of family legends.

First person up on a winter's morning (again, almost always hubby) would hustle down to poke the embers and get a fire going to warm things up for the rest of us. The kids would huddle around the stove while they waited for breakfast. Unfortunately, eldest son had a habit of presenting his backside to the stove. There were a few times he got a bit too close. We teased him that we didn't need marks on the wall to tell us how much he'd grown in a year, we could just check the red stripes on his behind.

One particularly cold morning, with the boys off to school and the main floor feeling toasty warm, I decided to treat myself to a hot, relaxing bath. We always kept the plug in the bathroom drain because the tap had an intermittent drip and the drain had a habit of freezing. Sure enough, that morning there was a shallow puddle trapped in the tub. When I reached for the plug to release the water, my fingers skated across a solid sheet of ice. I changed my mind about the bath.

The following summer, with our landlord's blessing, we knocked that old tub room off the back of the house and built a new, well-insulated bathroom and a lovely big sun room in its place. Not only was that sun room the best reading spot I've ever had, it was perfect for starting seedlings in the spring and made a glorious heat trap on sunny winter days.

It's possible I'm seeing those long ago winters through the rose coloured glasses of fond memory, but I'm positive snow was deeper – and fell more often – in those early days on the farm. Corn stubble in the surrounding fields disappeared under a blanket of white in November and wasn't seen again until April. We could step out the back door, strap on our cross country skis, and take off for a trek through the woods. The kids loved the adventure of it, learning how to start a fire in the snow and savouring a picnic lunch in the wild.

These days, we're all city dwellers, but a recently acquired plot of land has us dreaming and scheming. Far from the city lights and off the grid, the property has fertile fields, a scrap of forest, and a tiny cold water lake. We're in no rush to give full time back-to-the-landing another try; we like our internet and city comforts a bit too much. But I have to admit, there's also comfort in knowing we've done it before and, if we need to, we know how to do it again. Hopefully without zombies.

Wondering where you've heard that before? The title of this post is a quote from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost:

"The only other sound’s the sweep

of easy wind and downy flake."

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington


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At 12:02 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

Love reading about your times on the farm. It does sound lovely but I also know it is a hard life in many ways. It has certainly left you with wonderful memories and that makes it worth all the effort.

At 4:22 pm, Blogger Joanne Guidoccio said...

Excellent post and pictures! Thanks for sharing your winter memories. :)

At 8:36 pm, Blogger Sandy Cody said...

I enjoyed reading about your time on the farm. Love the pictures of the old stove and your boys. There's something very satisfying about heat from a visible source. Thanks for sharing.

At 2:43 pm, Blogger Sheila Seabrook said...

Love the pictures, Cheryl. All that hard work makes me shudder! :) Not much snow here this year either, but I do remember how much we had in the earlier days. I'm thankful I haven't had to shovel too much this winter, but it will be so dry in the spring!

At 4:17 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

It hasn't escaped my notice that I managed to remember the warmth of the wood stove and the delight of cross-country ski picnics, but completely forgot about those mornings when the van was snowed in and the wind shields coated with ice! Definitely don't miss that part of country living! Thanks for visiting, ladies - so glad you enjoyed my reminiscing.


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