The sky turned white and it snowed (sideways) for 36 hours this weekend.
With the return of feels-like-January weather, I can feel that I have a severe case of cabin fever (it’s a real thing).
noun (informal) irritability, listlessness, and similar symptoms resulting from long confinement or isolation indoors during the winter.
Yes, that’s what I feel—listlessness. A complete lack of interest in doing anything. I have no energy to engage in any of my usual modes of entertainment: reading, going outside, garden planning, conversing with others. Instead, I have spent a substantial amount of time napping and doing essentially nothing.
This afternoon the sun came out and we did go for a short ski, but didn’t stay out too long on account of strong winds.
In retrospect, I wish we’d have bundled up better, taken the snowshoes, and spent more time outside.
Last week I was in Massachusetts, where the weather was comparatively more spring-like. I made a quick trip to a nature area that I’d been to last year, also in late March. There was no snow, open water, and ducks and geese. I cannot tell you how happy I was to hear the familiar quacks of a mallards and to see waterfowl swimming through flooded forest.
It will be another month before we have ducks floating through our flooded woods, and today the wait feels like forever!
I’m liking paradox lately. I’ve recently finished listening to Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (amazing! highly recommended!) and she talks about the paradox of creativity in that book—perhaps I’ll talk about that in a future post, but in the meantime you should really just read that book.
I’m sure that having something both be and not be drives some people crazy. Those people probably think in terms of black and white. But I rarely see things as black or white; all ideas, thoughts, actions seem to be in countless shades of gray— if I ever see anything in terms of black or white, it’s really going to be black and white.
Anyway, as I was continuing to think about this transition from winter to spring, it occurred to me that I am living in a paradox:
It is spring. And it is not spring.
It is spring because we have tapped our maple trees and started making syrup. It is spring because the snow is melting and the rivers are open, and because there are geese and swans and cranes in the sky.
But it is not spring because there is still snow, and the sap in our buckets is frozen solid. And it is not spring because we went ice fishing today, and I cannot believe that one can ice fish in any season but winter.
It was a great day to go out. I haven’t ice fished in almost 10 years. Sexy and I went a few times long ago, but there was always a mishap: a broken heater, forgotten bait, something. So we only went a few times and I don’t think I ever caught anything. In recent years, I help out an our local fishing derby but don’t actually fish. But I’ve been wanting to spend more time outside, and this seemed like a good way to pass the time and a time of year (winter, not winter; spring, not spring) when there isn’t much else to do.
Our neighbor showed us where to go and lent me a shack, and we caught 17 crappies.
In trying to decide what season it currently is, it would be most appropriate to say mud season. I was thrilled to learn that there is a Russian word—rasputitsa—that describes when the roads go to hell during muddy spring and fall seasons. But if there were a mud season, I’d still be trying to figure out: Is today winter, or is it mud season? When does mud season officially become spring?
This is why paradox is better: because there are no crisp edges to seasons. It is spring. And it isn’t.
A few years ago, I forced myself to finally read Walden. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it in high school or college and it seemed like one of those books I was supposed to read. I bought a copy while traveling for work, probably in 2007 or 2008, read the first 10 or so pages, and set it aside for several years. Books written in the 1800s are so hard to read, being full of long, run-on sentences that contain six different ideas. While I have been told that I talk that way (putting one idea into another and and then another, working my way deeper and deeper within the same thought), I don’t like that style of writing or reading.
So it took me forever to get around to reading Walden, and then another forever (or at least most of a winter) to actually read the entire book. It was good, but it wasn’t magnificent for me; it didn’t bowl me over the way that it apparently has for other people. [Sidenote: Instead, I’d recommend Braiding Sweetgrass which also contemplates the interaction of nature and humans; it was beautiful, and I had to read it in small, savoring bits because it was so breathtaking that I could hardly read a section without crying at something sad or beautiful or profound.]
But I liked Walden well enough and there were definitely many nice pieces of text that I underlined to save for later, and I expect that someday I will go back, reread the book, and think to myself: This book is amazing! Why didn’t I recognize this the first time I read it?!?
One thing that I like about Walden is that it is written as the year progresses, starting in the spring. Aldo Leopold starts The Sand County Almanac with the new year in January, but I think that if I ever write a book about this place, I would also be inclined to start it in the early spring because that feels like the new year to me. Because Walden starts in the spring, however, it means that the chapters describing winter felt really long and boring. There’s not a lot going on in the winter for Thoreau to observe (although he does observe more than the rest of us who tend to stay inside where its warm), and so there seem to be pages of detailed descriptions and long contemplation. During the near-final chapter The Pond in Winter, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will anything more happen before the book ends?
But there is one last chapter—Spring—that starts with the ice melting on Walden Pond. In the span of a few pages, the writing picks up and goes into rapid-fire descriptions of all of the changes that are happening: lake ice melting, ground thawing, a robin, geese, rain, and green grass. There is still plenty of cumbersome mid-19th century prose, but at least there is excitement—and many exclamation points!
This is how the end of Walden felt to me: There’s ice and snow. There’s still ice and snow. Let’s ponder all this ice and snow, and some Hindu gods too just because there’s nothing else to do. The ice is starting to melt now. The ice is going away. Hey, look at this. And this! And this! And this! And this and this! Spring! Ta-da! The end.
And, funnily enough, I got to thinking about this today, because this is how life is feeling right now. We are currently right between “The ice is starting to melt now.” and “The ice is going away.” A week ago, I was feeling anxious and frustrated, which is really just being asymptomatic of cabin fever. [Another sidenote: This is why the tag Winter Never Ends is one of the most frequently used on my blog.]
Now that the trees are tapped and the ice is starting to melt, I’m feeling a bit better. Two nights ago, we went out to do some work on our land; I heard geese, and that made me so happy. Spring is not quite here yet, but in a few days I’ll be talking like this: The ice is going away. Hey, look at this. And this! And this! And this! And this and this! Spring! Ta-da!
p.s. As I was writing this post, I recalled a post from last year called Spring Starts a New Year and I wondered if I’d already written about some of these ideas. It seemed vaguely familiar—too familiar. Yup, I covered a lot of this same (frozen) ground year at pretty much the exact same time of the year. But I decided to keep going because this version is a bit different and captures my experience this spring.
Although it’s still winter, there are signs that spring is on its way. A week of unseasonably warm weather made me start a gardening project in February and we’ll be making maple syrup before too long. Like most years, I slipped into a bit of a funk starting sometime in November, which lasted into January. I think I fought it less this year, allowing myself to be lazy, to hibernate, and to explore winter in new ways—very slowly, and generally on snowshoes. By late January, I felt my energy start to go back up.
Light is a tremendous part of this. I definitely get a little bit S.A.D. in the winter with the short days. By late January, the days are lengthening so that there is some daylight left after work—enough that it’s easier to go snowshoeing or skiing, and a headlamp is optional rather than required.
But I think that the change in light conditions has as much to do with clouds as a longer day length. The clouds are much different now than during the darkest days of winter. Rather than the constant, overcast gray clouds that bring the lake-effect snow, there are more white, patchy, billowy clouds that let the sunshine be visible during the day.
I just finished reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the the Cloud Appreciation Society. It’s a great book, and I definitely recommend you check it out, as it described the major types of clouds and conditions under which they form.
One time I was in southern Illinois in the spring and participating a competition to identify trees. I had no idea what one was and so I just wrote down “the tree with pretty pink flowers.” Of course, that was not the correct answer, and all of the foresters from southern states giggled that us northerners were so clueless to not know such an obvious tree (it was a redbud, and I’ve never forgotten it since). That pretty much sums us my relationship with clouds: I’ve known that there is a difference between the fluffy white clouds and the thick gray ones and the patchy pretty ones that look really nice at sunset—but I could never tell you what they were called (stratus? nimbus? the ones that look like animals… Der…).
But now I know the different clouds… or at least I am learning them, and have a better appreciation for them.
I went to the cottage over the week to continue my tree-cutting project. It was about 20ºF and cloudy, with a bit of lake-effect snow falling. There was a strong wind from, oddly, the southwest that was blowing right in my face as I was cutting trees. It was not the most pleasant day to be out, but I was already at the property and figured I should cut at least one or two trees down. I cut most of the smaller trees already and upgraded to a larger saw for the remaining big trees, so each tree takes longer.
I was cutting down one tree, about 14 inches in diameter. While sawing, I was thinking about how boring it was to saw this tree, about how sluggish I felt, and about how my arms got tired after a few minutes. I stopped to take a break, and looked up to see the sunlight start to peek through the clouds.
I’ve been thinking that lake-effect snow clouds, our most common winter clouds that can cover the sky for days and days, are probably status clouds—the low-lying, formless clouds that are essentially a layer of thick fog only a few thousand feet in the sky. It was nice that the sun was visible at all, a sign that the strong winds were breaking up the cloud layer. I watched the wind move the clouds around a while, the patch of sunlight moving accordingly, and then when back to sawing. When I was ready to leave, the clouds had opened more to allow more beams of sunlight through.
The sky continued to open, and by the time I trudged back to my car, there were even patches of blue sky. The wind and warmer temperatures had changed the clouds. I’m still learning, but I think these new clouds were probably stratocumulus—large, billowly rolls of clouds that are half-way between the thick, shapeless stratus clouds and the cotton balls of white fluff that are cumulus clouds.
During the past few years I’ve really been trying to spend more time appreciating nature (which is really where this blog comes from), and I think one of the biggest changes that I’ve made is that I’m routinely paying more attention to the sky whenever I’m outside, even at night. I spent a lot of time last fall looking at the sky and enjoying the clouds in general, and that was nice. Now I’m looking forward to looking at the clouds with a bit more knowledge, and expecting that I’ll appreciate them even more.
Okay, I couldn’t help it. We had a week of unseasonably warm weather in mid-February. The sap started running on February 17th (no tapping yet, though). The snow melted back severely and we didn’t even know if we would be able to snowshoe to the cottage without trudging through 18 inches of “mashed potatoes.”
So what else could I possibly do besides garden?!?!
I’ve been reading a lot of permaculture plans lately, and have been interested in the idea of zones. Basically, you orient your yard/homestead/property into a series of zones based on the intensity of use. Zone 0 is your residence and zone 1 is the area nearest your residence that’s very accessible and perfect for veggie gardens, animal pens, and anything you need to tend to frequently. The zones continue outward until zone 5 which is called “wilderness” where nature can do its thing.
This is such a simple idea that it seems obvious. Of course one should have their gardens right next to the house—it’s so convenient to have veggies out your front door! But my garden is unfortunately in the wrong location; it’s on the other side of the garage in what is probably zone 2, which has the best light but is not the most convenient.
I decided that I wanted a veggie garden closer to the house—at least for a few things that we eat all of the time. I spent a ton of time working on the gardens around the house last summer, so I’m not willing to tear those up yet. The soils there are pretty crummy, anyway. And most importantly, it’s (despite the sunshine and 50º temps) still February and there’s still all that snow on the ground
The clear solution was to build a raised bed close to the house. I built a raised bed using a pattern that I designed a few years ago. The placement is genius—we put the raised bed inside of an existing (but under-developed) garden right outside our back door. The raised beds hovers over the stupid covers for our septic tank, which was a weird spot in our yard anyway. Very sneaky!
Then, I designed a hoop house to go over the raised bed. It took a few tries to figure out how to do it, but this seems pretty stable.
I filled it with two big bales of potting mix (all of our soil and compost is buried), which is pretty fancy. I planted cold-hardy greens—lettuce, spinach, mizuna, and arugula— on February 22. Then we put a 4-mil plastic cover over it.
And now we wait and hope that things grow, despite the snow.
Spring is being quite the tease this year. We’ve had some gorgeous days of warm and sunny weather, inevitably followed by a return to cooler temperatures. At least twice now, the snow in our yard has nearly melted and then we’ve immediately gotten new snow to cover up the cold, wet ground. It’s not that this is unusual for this time of year, it’s just that it’s irritating every year.
I’ve been trying to think about what I want to do this spring. Partly, it seems like I have to catch up from being sick so much this winter; between being sick and traveling for work, I’ve been feeling a bit behind on life. Slowly, I’m catching up. After tearing out the walls in our upstairs to redo the insulatation last fall, we finally have painted the walls and put our stuff (mostly) back in place. And while the house isn’t clean, it’s not the sty it was a few weeks ago. Slowly catching up.
When I think about what I really want to do this spring, it’s really simple: I want to play outside and I want to get stronger.
I feel cooped up from so much indoor time this winter. To some extent, this is true of every winter, but it feels like it even more this year because I was under the weather for so many weeks in January and February.
So this is what that looks like for the spring (April-June):
Plant blueberries and raspberries
Garden a lot (I have a separate list of garden projects.)
It took me years to read Walden—years to actually open the book after buying it and setting it on the shelf, and then more years to actually read it from front to back. The book starts in spring, near the end of March when Thoreau starts to clear the area for his cabin, and ends a little over a year later in early May with the trees beginning to leaf out and birds returning on their migrations.
While it took me a long time to read the entire thing, the winter season in particular dragged on. The reading was long, slow, and monotonous. In short, the reading felt a lot like winter. My favorite part of the book was the end of it—not just because I finally finished, but because the tempo changed. As winter turned to spring, the writing became faster and more upbeat. There’s more energy, more sunshine. Just like how it feels when spring really comes.
I’ve decided that tapping day is one of my favorite days of this year. It doesn’t mark the actual start of spring, but it’s the clearest sign that spring is on its way. Tapping day is the beginning of the end of winter—a period of about 6 weeks during which the snow melts and everything that was buried starts to emerge.
I especially liked this tapping day because it was the first time I have been able to really be outside in quite a while. I had a nasty flu and am still recovering weeks later. I could only walk on snowshoes and carry buckets through the woods for so long, but it was a treat to be out and moving.
With the trees running as soon as we tapped them, it won’t be long before we’ll be carrying buckets full of sap.