A cold snap in the middle of a northeastern winter spawns many questions. Questions such as why on earth do we live so far from the equator? How many months until summer? What on earth were we complaining about when it was getting up to 30 most days? When will it end?
And what is it with cats anyhow? Why do they walk exactly in front of your feet, fluffing their tails and flaunting their fannies, tripping you every other step? They toss themselves shoulder first into the snow two inches from your toes and roll, smiling up at you and showing tiger-eye bellies, as you scramble to avoid them. Don't they know that if they would just follow behind like a good dog would you could get to the barn faster and get kibbles into their dish sooner?
Of course with Pumpkin, one of the kitties we got from our logger friend in town, it is just that she wants a shoulder ride to the barn. If I have a hand free I oblige. What's a burdock or two stuck in my hat or ice-cold paws down the neck between friends anyhow? The motor boat purr right next to my ear is worth it.
Cats are as smart as heifers about finding warm spots on cold days. They sneak into the milk house uninvited and steal perches on the compressor that cools the milk. We evict them faithfully in honor of our milk inspector, but they return as relentlessly as winter does.
The heifers stand like statues against the south-facing wall of the barn, sheltered from westerly breezes by the wall of the el. They steam in stereo with their watering trough, while the sun bakes the snow from their thick, warm fur. It amazes me that they are so well-insulated against the cold that snow won't melt when it lands on them. I suppose it instead forms an extra layer of protection, as they never seem to mind it.
A long time ago when my first horse and I were deep in the special relationship that only first horses can offer a horse-crazy kid, a long time horseman at the stable where I boarded scolded me for brushing my snowy friend when I brought him in from pasture. "Don't do that," he warned me. "You'll get the wet down next to his skin and make him cold. Leave him alone. He's got a layer of fluff next to his hide that will keep him dry and warm."
I don't know if it was so, but I left his snow overcoat alone after that and he lived more than 30 years, so I guess winter never hurt him. A winter-coated horse sure can shed when spring comes. Just ask any bareback rider, as they scrape dusty hair off their jeans. Ponies are even worse. Our ponies were often still shedding in June, leaving great swathes of chestnut hair on the grass every time they rolled away their itches.
On these sharp, frozen days of real winter, I often stand in the barn doorway near the heifers and experience the same conundrum of warmth in the face of the bitter cold. The temperature might be only 5 degrees above 0. Out on the hill the wind is sneering and snarling and it is cold. Nose-freezing, chest-constricting, diesel-motor-stalling, hose-clogging, vacuum pump-stopping cold.
And yet, there in the lee of the wind, in the light of the south, the sun is balmy and beneficent. It is pleasant to stand with closed eyes and let it beat on a frozen face, while waiting for the slow-starting skid steer to deliver a round bale to the milkers.
There beside the door the mundane flap of belting, which in theory keeps out drafts, is paisley with frost flowers, unlikely and outlandish blooms of water crystals, amazing in their intricacy.
The sky is a startling, eye-searing blue, fading to white near the horizon, bright in a way that summer never can be. Blowing snow blurs the bare, black, trees, softening their outline until it blends with the sky. It is so bright that when a junco flies past the windows it drags behind a shadow that would do justice to an eagle. It is so low in the sky that the sparrows under the feeder, five species of them this year, cast their own long shadows that dwarf their little feathered selves. The cold makes even the wildest of them, the juncos, the tree sparrows, the white-crowns, tame enough to come right to my feet, or to sit on the clothesline, scolding me to hurry with that bird seed.
The warm minutes in the doorway are all too brief, however, and it's back to moving frozen everything and thawing frozen everything else. How we long for warmer weather.
Come evening on cold days, boots squeak and scrunch through the snow, providing an interesting counterpoint to chattering teeth and a wind-whipped scarf. The fat, full moon perches on the horizon like a big yellow chicken. Once it hoists itself up to roost in the sky, flashlights become superfluous and shadows seem to take on three dimensions. All the myriad bunny tracks all over the yard give rise to the question: Where are all the bunnies? There are thousands of tracks and not a single little brown lagomorph. Oh, wait, the pup spots something up under the old apple tree.
Is it a bunny? Why, yes it is. More winter questions arise. How can something so cute in the winter, scuffling over the shining snow, thumping its feet, and nibbling at the bird seed, become such an awful pest in garden season? How can so few bunnies make so many tracks on the lawn?
Finally, comes the thaw. The stable cleaner will run again, freeing the farmer from shovel and fork. The eaves sprout icicle fangs that drool their pointy little rivers. And we ask, is this spring? Well, probably not, but there's no law against dreaming.
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs