Friday, January 6, 2012

Winter Gardening

Thursday, January 5

In every gardener, there's also a dream lurking somewhere on the premises, especially during the bitterly cold days of winter deep freeze. The dream of an early spring day that's sunny enough and warm enough to be outside in the garden. Or a dream of the first summer harvest. Or the first ripe tomato. Or the first fresh tomato sauce, redolent with the aroma of fresh cropped basil and minced garlic. And there's nothing like the arrival of the spring gardening catalogues to help the dream along, glowing with the emblems of summer. A ripe tomato (or two or three) prominently in the foreground of almost every cover, like the watercolor still-life of vegetables on the Shepard's Seed catalogue that turned up in the mailbox this afternoon. And not only some glowing red tomatoes, but also a glossy purple eggplant, a cranberry-colored head of radicchio, a bright yellow pepper sitting next to a green pepper turning red at the tops of its shoulder, a couple heads of pale white garlic, a few sprigs of basil, and a big crinkly green leaf of kale, all appetizingly arrayed upon a bright blue-and-yellow-striped tablecloth. As sunny as summer itself.

As sunny as winter, too, at least at the moment. No matter how bad the temperature or the windchill gets in January, the sun seems to shine more brightly now than at any other time of the year. An illusion aided, no doubt, by its low angle in the sky and its reflection on the snow. It shines more regularly too. Five days in a row so far. The color of its reflected light and the texture of the shadows it casts on the snow can change continuously, as I can see from my third-floor perspective. Early this morning at sunrise, it cast a long shadowless orange aura over the backyard. A few hours later, the yard seemed bathed in a piercingly white light, broken only by the sharply defined and very dark shadows of the trees. A few hours later, the shadows began to soften and the light turned faintly yellow. And now, late in the afternoon, the shadows have completely disappeared, the snow is grayish, and soon it will change color again at the fabled blue hour.

No wonder the Scandinavians cherish the sun so much they've developed a special light bulb to compensate for the long periods when they're deprived of sunlight. I first heard about such light bulbs when I was reading the newspaper this morning, and one of them exploded in the table lamp just a few feet from my head, scattering its pale purple shards on the carpet around my feet. A few minutes later, Kate hustled downstairs to see what had happened, and it was then that she explained to me how these light bulbs are meant to "cut down on depression and lift your spirits," because, as one of the ads for them reports, "their bright, glare-free light is the closest thing to natural daylight." Natural daylight, thank God, doesn't explode just a few feet from my head, but it does lift my spirits. Even now, when its glow is barely perceptible in the snow that is so blue, so blue as to be inseparable from the sky.

From Carl Klaus's Weathering Winter: A Gardener's Daybook

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Winter Sport

By the time the River's narrows are gorged with grinding, piling ice, it is usually late December or well into January. For weeks the rough, opaque ice has blocked out such sunlight as there is. Submerged aquatic plants in the backwaters are unable to respire and produce oxygen, ice cover has prevented wind from aerating the water, and yet a certain biological demand is being made of the River. Even though all metabolisms have slowed, oxygen is still being used faster than it can be replenished in many areas. The winter fish-kill begins. Gizzard shad are among the first to die; they perish in vast numbers under the ice and are carried downstream through the channel dams and into the open River just beyond. Here, awaiting the dead fish, are bald eagles.

It is no wonder that some people here at the lower end of the Upper Mississippi wonder about the general concern for the eagles. On January 2, 1984, I counted fifty-one eagles perched in the trees below Lock and Dam 26; there were nine in one big cottonwood. Now and then one of the great birds would launch itself out over the open water, seeming to know exactly where to go, snatching a dead fish from the surface and easily competing with those other masters of dead-fish-snatching, the scavenger gulls. The harder the winter and the heavier the River ice, the greater the concentrations of our bald eagles. There are periods when up to two hundred eagles can be seen on the Mississippi and lower Illinois within forty miles of where I'm writing this.

They no longer nest here at Pool 26, and our Eagle's Nest Island is only a place name. But in winter they may be so common that they hardly cause comment. I walked from my house down through Hop Hollow to the River one day, tracking a wayward retriever puppy in several inches of new powder snow. It was fine weather, cold and quiet and perfectly clear, a day of alabaster and long blue tree shadows. There was suddenly another shadow, a moving one, crossing my trail. Then another, and another. I looked up to see eight bald eagles through the treetops just above me. Five were adults marked with white heads and tails and dark bodies; the others were brown-and-white juveniles. They milled silently above the trees from which I had started them, little more than fifty yards away but moving off. It isn't everyday that you'll flush a covey of bald eagles, and I watched slack-jawed while they vanished beyond the blufftop. Then came the chill of realizing that somewhere nearby, maybe even under the roost itself, there was a plump, ingenuous black Lab puppy that a bald eagle could see in that white snow with its head tucked under its wing. The pup's registered name, however, was Milo Lucky Streak—and he soon appeared, safe but lonely, gallumphing toward me with happy welcoming noises.

From John Madson's Up on the River: People and Wildlife of the Upper Mississippi

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Winter Story

December 31, 1909 Friday—New Year's Eve—Am at Speers again—stove smoked me out.

Got up yesterday morning pulled on my stockings and shoes and ran out and started my fire—it began to smoke—I worked with it as quickly as possible but was soon almost over come with smoke—just grabbed my big coat and rushed out doors—thanked my lucky stars I had no near neighbors as I perched there on a snow drift coughing and choking and trying to lace my shoes—was also thankful it was some what warmer—when the smoke thinned I went in and dressed then tried it again with no better result so packed my suit case straightened up a bit and started for Speers. Was kind of chilly around the edges when I started but soon warmed up to it as a great deal of new snow had fallen and had drifted the track full. Before I was half way here I was ready to drop the suit case and myself in the snow and shuffle off this mortal coil—it surely was fierce. Howard had started for a jag of hay and saw me comming and came after me—took me around by the hay stack—made me tramp hay. Was about all in when I got here.

Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Corey, 1909-1919, edited by Paul Gerber