Sudden Onset Winter

We have sudden onset acute winter syndrome. One day it was balmy and late fall-like, and the next it was Christmas already, with a solid blanket of snow and temps down to the minus teens ℉ (that’s -25 or so on the Celsius scale for you Fahrenheit-challenged folks). Meanwhile, we who had been lulled into doing a really really, really, thorough job on our chores ended up scrambling like mad to keep the fingers of cold from snaking into the house and grabbing at our feet and to get all the wood stacked in all the right places. Small complicating factor being that our largest bedroom currently doesn’t have a ceiling. But as of today it has insulation to cover about 65% of the room. You take what you can get. It seems like every year there’s more to do to get ready for winter. 

Even though winter is never like it used to be. When I was four, Holland saw record cold and snow not equalled since, and you might say not equalled before, either: it was by some measures the coldest winter since 1789, the winter that according to some historians created the impetus for the French Revolution, as grain got expensive and hence bread also. Temperature observation was an important preoccupation of humanist/scientists in the eighteenth century. The earliest daily continuous records that have survived are those of Nicolaas Kruik of Delft in 1705, some twenty years before Fahrenheit proposed the standardized temperature scale he developed in The Hague and used in his wildly popular mercury thermometers— which is how it became widely adopted for a couple of hundred years. By the epic winter of 1962-3, however, Holland measured on the metric-based Celsius scale. (Today the United States is one of five countries in the world to stick with Gabriel Fahrenheit.)

That winter created some of my first coherent memories. I can still see feel and see the experience of walking between walls of snow piled so high it felt like a tunnel. It takes being four, of course; my mother had to lift me across the piles at the corner. On a Sunday at the beach, along with everyone else in town, we gawked at broken ice piled as high as a house in my short person memory, like in photographs of Antarctica. In an unheard-of move, my grandfather got a bicycle shop to sell him a sled for me on a Sunday. The highlight of my winter was getting towed on my sled by my uncle in his Peugeot on the a lake. Driving onto the ice! People were giddy with excitement: not only was driving new for most, this kind of ice was unheard-of. In a seaside city of a mere couple of inches now and then, it would be the only time for that particular kind of magic.

I have waited for another winter like it ever since. But moving to Plainfield brought winters with cold and snow on the fantastic scale I remembered. It started with a historic winter in which the temps dipped deeply every night. It got so cold the water supply to my not-so-winterized cabin froze solidly underground on January 19, not to defrost until April 25. Twenty-three below, twenty-six below. I was living on my own for the first time and I had the winter adventure I’d looked for right by the tail. Hauling water, stuffing newspapers into cracks, keeping my feet off the floor. Night after night after night, feeding the wood stove offered a view of the coldest, twinkliest snow I had ever seen. New magic.

Winter is never like it used to be, and most winters are dominated by layers of ice that will drive the hardiest most phlegmatic Yankee to cursing… But the magic is here in spades this year. Snow came and with it a shock of recognition: I remember this! Snow without a maddening layer of ice below it, gorgeous woods inviting you to lie down for a while, frozen tundra horizontal blowing snow at twilight, enough frost to make you scurry around making sure the pipes don’t freeze, enough frost to slow down some of the insect hordes threatening our forests. Skiing and snowshoeing; dogs going nuts diving in and out of snow banks; chopping kindling and hauling wood; Christmas table cloths frozen stiff and flapping wildly on the line; endless donning and doffing of layers of coats, hats and gloves. And above all, ice and snow crystals in the morning sun; the blue of twilight; the twinkling of the moon in a million reflections on a still, still night when small creatures scurry around under a thick blanket of frozen snow. 

Bundle up, it’s -12, cold on any scale. Wishing everyone a happy and warm 2018. 

PS — Most of these images may be ordered as cards or prints. If there’s no “SW” number, ask.

3 thoughts on “Sudden Onset Winter

  1. Especially good – your writing just gets better. I got some of your cards and your book as a present – much appreciated. And you are right – there is nothing like a Plainfield winter to bring everything into focus, particularly the gift of shelter. xxxxoooo

  2. Hi Pleun: I really enjoyed your writing and of course your fabulous pictures. It is funny how you mention “magic” in your piece because after our last snow shoe thru the woods prior to your leaving for Holland my thoughts of that time together (with dogies of course) that ran through my mind was “white magic” I am sure there will be plenty of snow upon your return and I am looking forward to our snow shoeing once again.
    I hope you are having a good time away.

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