Getting ready for winter – in April?
Old timers say there are only two seasons in the North Country:
Getting Ready for Winter
But that’s hyperbole. Each of the four seasons grace the North Country’s landscape with a different kind of character and beauty, and we enjoy them all.
Spring is a renaissance that comes in a rush of warmth and light, stirring into life the wild places, thawing and waking up a winter-locked land, promising both flora and fauna that it is finally safe to come out of hiding and celebrate survival – although true spring might not arrive until May, and its visit can be as short as a week or two.
Summer is fecund, the fields and woodlands ripe with scents of fertile soil, erupting into hillside mosaics of hundreds of hues of green plant life, speckled with white, pink, blue, purple, and crimson wildflower blossoms – but there are days the summer air is heavy and dank as a tropical jungle, and hordes of black gnats can make a walk in the wild a misery.
Autumns are magnificent here, leaves going golden and scarlet, fields of corn and soybeans rattling a constant background chorus of brittle-brown chants to the northwest winds, the flocks of songbirds gathering for their southward migration, the crisp scents of first frost – and the mad race of harvesting, cleaning, and canning garden produce at its peak.
My favorite season is the occasional and unpredictable Indian summer that comes after a killing frost, lingering autumn weeks that coddle the North Country with perfect days: chilly mornings, hazy afternoons with temperatures in the forties and fifties, and nights that drop down to just below freezing. We are tempted to slip into a sedate mood as languid as the weather, but the pace of life in the fields and woodlands is frenzied as deer and turkey and squirrels forage and feed ceaselessly to put on the layers of fat that will sustain them through the harsh and miserly months ahead. They remind us that autumn is, indeed, the season of Getting Ready for Winter.
April should be a more tranquil month, a time to look back at the winter past with a sense of relief, not look forward to the winter ahead with anxiety. Nevertheless, on April 1st I was playing the fool, beginning firewood cutting, splitting and hauling chores for the winter that was, hopefully, still seven months away. There were reasons for this foolishness.
Our neighbor to the east had his woods logged last fall, and the trail cut along the base of our wooded bluff by the huge logging equipment provided access to several of our large trees that had come down in storms over the past three years: two oaks, one walnut, one ash, one white elm, and four red elm. Walking the logging trail with dogs several times over the winter, I estimated at least six cords of firewood, maybe seven. All within twenty yards of the trail, down, dried, accessible, and easy to cut.
But a pickup truck does not have the same ground clearance as a logging machine, so some trail improvement was necessary, and this was best done in early spring when the ground was still partially frozen, before the snowmelt runoff and goopy mud of late April made the trail a quagmire. Cutting up and moving scattered tree limbs along the trail was easy labor. Building a ford across a shallow but steeply banked creek was not. It required a bit of country-boy engineering and a stubborn willingness to carry, by hand, a few hundred slabs of limestone from upstream to the ford site.
The first trip across with the pickup resulted in the temporary hang-up of the trailer hitch on the south bank of the stream, but a shovel and another couple dozen chunks of rock put all aright, and we were on our way to woodstove owner’s paradise. I would like to say April was kind to us and I was able to cut and haul all six cords of wood in the week that followed, but it was not to be. An Arctic front blew in and dropped six inches of snow on the farm in the first week of the month, and other storm is predicted to bury the logging trail with an additional four inches tonight.
April can be a graceful lady in the North Country, but beware: she has her witchy days (April’s Wild Card). May she be kind enough this spring to leave my limestone fording dikes standing, not wash them away in a torrent of snowmelt.
If she will grant me that favor, I may have a winter’s worth of firewood in the racks by the end of June. And when the first star appears on the evening of the autumn equinox (September 22 this year) I will ask the Spirits that control the seasons to send us a killing frost followed by long weeks of Indian Summer. Then, smug and sanctimonious, I will sit in a tree stand overlooking the logging trail, not especially eager to take a deer that early in the bow season, but happy to know I will be going home at twilight to find a fire blazing in the woodstove.
My favorite time of day in my favorite season of the North Country.