Ice Burns

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Ice burns, and it is hard to the warm-skinned to distinguish one
sensation, fire, from the other, frost.
~A. S. Byatt from Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

Compared to the rest of the country, our winter has been quite moderate — no heavy snows, no days of sub-zero temperatures, no ice storms.
Yet 10 days of northeast arctic winds have begun to take a toll: my face and hands are reddened just as if I’ve been in the sun too long.

Whether we are consumed by flames or frozen, resulting in ashes or ice — how it will feel is the same.

Yet ashes remain ashes, only and forever after, mere dust.
If, encased in ice, a thaw may restore,
then frozen memory sears like sculpture
meant to melt, ceasing to imprison.

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Lenten Grace — Pierced With Love

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
~Tom Hennen from “In the Late Season”

And so, pierced by love, we begin the melt, readying for what is to come.  The thaw shatters us into pieces, no longer iced up and untouched.   A current of hopefulness now flows freely in deeply buried veins, warmed and pulsing.

Our hearts thrum.  All will be new.

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

Solitude Melting

photos of Dark Hedges, Ireland

photos of Dark Hedges, Ireland

The Cold

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

–to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
~Wendell Berry

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

Snow and Ice Sublime

From Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of my favorite books of all time–I suspect she wrote this on a winter evening that felt much like this one:

“In a dry wind like this, snow and ice can pass directly into the air as a gas without having first melted to water.  This process is called sublimation; tonight the snow in the yard and the ice in the creek sublime.  A breeze buffets my palm held a foot from the wall.  A wind like this does my breathing for me: it engenders something quick and kicking in my lungs.  Pliny believed the mares of the Portuguese used to raise their tails to the wind, ‘and turn them full against it, and so conceive that genital air instead of natural seed; in such sort, as they become great withal, and quicken in their time, and bring forth foals as swift as the wind…’.

A single cell quivers at a windy embrace; it swells and splits, it bubbles into a raspberry; a dark clot starts to throb.  Soon something perfect is born. Something wholly new rides the wind, something fleet and fleeting I’m likely to miss.”

Breaking Through the Ice

Freezing rain needs to happen every two or three years just to remind Pacific Northwesterners that regular rain isn’t such a bad thing.  We webfoot Washingtonians tend to grouse about our continuously gray cloud-covered bleak dreary drizzly wet mildew-ridden existence. But that’s not us actually grumbling.  That’s just us choosing not to exhibit overwhelming joy.  They don’t call Bellingham, the town ten miles from our farm,  the “city of subdued excitement” for no good reason.

So when the temperatures drop in our moderate climate and things start to ice up, or the snowflakes start to fall, we celebrate the diversion from rain.  Our children are out building snowmen when there is a mere 1/2 inch of snow on the ground, leaving lawns bare and green with one large snowman in the middle.  Schools start to cancel at 2 inches.  We natives are pitifully terrible snowy road drivers compared to the highly experienced (and at times overconfident) midwestern and northeastern transplants in our midst.

But then this little meteorologic phenomenon known as freezing rain and the resultant silver thaw happens.  It warms up enough that it really isn’t snowing but it also really isn’t raining because the temperatures are still subfreezing at ground level, so it spills ice drops from the sky–noisy little splatters that land and stay beaded up on any surface.  Branches become botanical popsicles, sidewalks become bumpy rinks, roads become sheer black ice, windows encase with textured glass twice as thick as usual.

So in the midst of this frozen concoction coming from the sky, I put off farm chores tonight as long as possible, knowing it would take major navigation aids to simply make my way out the back steps, across the sidewalk and down the hill, then up the slick cement slope to open the big sliding barn doors.  Chains on my muck boots help, to a degree.  The barn doors thankfully hadn’t iced together as they have in the past when the northeast wind blows freezing rain into the tiny gap between them, so by breaking foot holds into the ice on the cement, I was able to roll back the doors just enough to sneak through before shutting them quickly behind me, blocking the arctic wind blast.  Then I turned around to face the barn aisle and drink in the warmth of seven stalls of hungry Haflinger horsie bodies, noisily greeting me by chastising me for my tardiness in feeding them dinner.

Wintertime chores are always more time-consuming but ice time chores are even more so.  Water buckets need to be filled individually because the hoses are frozen solid.  Hay bales stored in the hay barn must be hauled up the slick slope to the horse barn.  Frozen manure piles need to be hacked to pieces with a shovel rather than a pitchfork.   Who needs a bench press and fancy weight lifting equipment when you can lift five gallon buckets, sixty pound bales and twenty pounds of poop per shovel full?  Why invest in an elliptical exerciser to get the aerobic work out in?  This farm life is saving me money… I think.

Once inside each stall, I take a moment to run my ungloved hand over a fluffy golden winter coat, to untangle a mane knot or two, and to breathe in sweet Haflinger hay breath from a velvety nose.   It is the reason I slide downhill and I land on my face pushing loads of hay uphill to feed these beloved animals, no matter how hazardous the footing or miserable the weather.  It is why their stalls get picked up more often than our bedrooms, their stomachs are filled before ours, and I pay for hoof trims for the herd rather than manicures and pedicures for the people residing in the house.

The temperatures will rise tomorrow, the overwhelming ice covering will start to thaw and our farm will be happily back to drippy and overcast.  No matter what the weather,  the barn will always be a refuge of comfort, even when the work is hard and the effort is a challenge for this middle aged farmer.

It’s enough to melt even the most grumbly heart and the thickest coating of ice.

Silver Thaw

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Winter has hit with a vengeance with snow closing many roads, airports and schools, and then an ice storm blanketed us during the night, resulting in significant tree and power line damage and over 100,000 homes without electricity. We’re feeling pretty fortunate where we are farther north–the ice damage was less, though it is persisting in our 9th day of sub freezing temperatures. We awoke to to a 1/2 inch of ice coating everything, and it remains unthawed, creating hazards everywhere.

It is conditions like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, firestorms and silver thaws that remind us how little control we have over our environment and how much control it has over us. Being unable to walk anywhere outdoors that isn’t coated with ice is a humbling, helpless, feeling. Yet I’m grateful for the reminder of our helplessness. We dwell in this often hostile world and try to steward it, but we adapt to it, not the world adapting to us. We cannot stop the frozen rain from falling, but must wait patiently for the southerly winds to blow.

In fact, the warming is coming. Only 10 miles to the south of our farm, the temperature is a full 20 degrees higher, the ground is thawed and the ice is gone. When I listen out our back door to the south, I can hear the frozen trees in our woods knocking their branches together in a noisy cacophony as the south wind warms the ice, and chunks drop from the branches, clattering and clacking their way to the ground. From stony frozen silence to animated noisemakers with a steady puff of warm wind.

At times I am iced over as well–rigid in my opinions, frozen in my emotion, silent and cocooned in myself. That is when the approach of warmth from a touch, an empathic word, or heartfelt outreach breaks me free. Perhaps a little frostbitten around the edges, but I am freed again, warmed by relationships with friends and family and a host of virtual acquaintances from around the world.

I’m ready for the coming of the warm wind. It is well worth the wait.

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