…step outside into an indecision of weather,
night rain having fallen into frozen air,
a silver thaw where nothing moves or sings
and all things grieve under the weight of their own shining.
~ James McKean from “Silver Thaw”
Freezing rain needs to happen once a decade just to remind Pacific Northwesterners that regular rain isn’t such a bad thing. We’re in the midst of just such a silver thaw right now. Trees and heavy branches are crashing everywhere, the power is off, the farm generator is on and life as we know it comes to a standstill under an inch thick blanket of ice.
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 university town ten miles from our farm, the “city of subdued excitement” for no good reason.
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 because of the lack of snow removal equipment and no bunkers of stored sand for the roads. We natives are pitifully terrible snow drivers compared to the highly experienced (and at times overconfident) midwestern and northeastern transplants in our midst.
But then the weather gets indecisive and this little meteorologic phenomenon known as freezing rain with its 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 resemble botanical popsicles, sidewalks become bumpy rinks, roads become sheer black ice, cars are encased in an impenetrable glaze of ice and windows are covered with textured glass twice as thick as usual.
In the midst of this frozen concoction coming from the sky, we delay farm chores as long as possible, knowing it will take major navigation aids to simply make our 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 our muck boots help, to a degree. The big rolling barn doors ice together when the northeast wind blows freezing rain into the tiny gap between them, so it is necessary to break foot holds into the ice on the cement to roll back the doors just enough to sneak through before shutting them quickly behind us, blocking the arctic wind blast. Then we can drink in the warmth of six stalls of hungry Haflinger horses, noisily greeting us by chastising us for our 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 fifteen pounds of poop per shovel full? Why invest in an elliptical exerciser? This farm life is saving us 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 will slide downhill, land on my face pushing loads of hay uphill to feed these loved 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 we pay for hoof trims for the herd but never manicures and pedicures for the people residing in the house.
The temperatures will rise, 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 these middle aged farmers.
It’s enough to melt even the most grumbly heart and therefore the thickest coating of ice.