January ends as February looms. The year’s first month over and done … already! Guess it’s time to take stock.
February marks the midpoint of that long, lean season between autumn’s sustaining harvest and spring’s greening rebirth and the new plantings. The ancient pattern of life from death.
This is how it has always been for folks whose lives and livelihood are intertwined with land and season. Spring sowing, summer’s growth, the reaping of labor’s harvest in autumn — then restlessly enduring the white immuration of winter until the cycle begins anew.
In Ohio’s bygone days—though really not all that long ago — life was lived closer to the bone. Winter was more than mere season — more a stalking beast, a force to be reckoned with, endured…survived. The bitter cold was unrelenting, and sometimes the biting wind, pelting ice, and falling snow seemed to keep hammering forever — day after day, night after night. An onslaught that gnawed away at joy and optimism.
Come February, many a rural dweller began to worry about his family’s survival. Was there enough food to nourish everyone until spring? Would the woodpile outlast the remaining weeks of brutal cold?
He feared, too, for the lives of his animals — that small collection of cows and pigs, chickens and sheep, which provided eggs and meat, milk and cream and butter for the table, feathers for stuffing pillows and tick mattresses, wool for spinning. He was especially concerned about the wellbeing of his horses or oxen — perhaps just a single mule. Vital helpmates that allowed him to work the land. Livestock was the invaluable backbone of a farm. Winter fell harsh on domesticated creatures.
Had sufficient gain and feed corn been stored? How about hay and fodder?
Valid life or death concerns. And until a man knew the answers, he had good reason to fret and be afraid. “Responsible trepidation,” a history-buff friend once called it.
After all, if we’re talking earliest days—before statehood, prior to our borders being partitioned off from the old Northwest Territories — those first families, homesteaders, lived “in back of beyond,” on the cusp of an untamed wilderness that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A vast and frightening and unforgiving land.
Isolated to a degree few of us can imagine, without benefit of nearby neighbors to help in any way, such folks were wholly dependent upon their own self-sufficiency. Surviving winter hinged on whatever preparations they had made back in the fall.
But had they done enough?
As winter lingered, their apprehension grew. By February, reassurance they’d make it through to spring was desperately needed.
A proverb came to mind. Not a biblical verse, but a folkloric maxim — a familiar rural caution that a fellow wanted to have “half his wood, and half his hay on Candlemas Day.”
Like many similar adages, this particular bit of country wisdom was older than the settling of America. Advice faithfully handed down through the generations. Words doubtlessly repeated to many a wide-eyed son by their stoic fathers, as their adventuring offspring stepped aboard the tall-masted square-riggers that would carry them and their few meager possessions across the wide blue sea to a shining New World.
Good advice, too. Then and now. And so, on Feb. 2 —Candlemas Day — it was common practice that a winter-worried countryman would set forth to take stock.
The remaining stack of firewood was surveyed. Grains and food stores in bins, barrels, and root-cellar were inventoried; hay and fodder in the barn and loft got checked. And when everything passed muster, our man could breathe a sigh of blessed relief and head back to the house with the good news.
I don’t have a barn or various livestock. But I do have a pantry, and because I heat totally with wood, a woodpile.
Food resources are not a problem. I regularly peer into the overstuffed pantry. Should anything need replenishing, nearby warehouse-size grocery stores abound.
Firewood, however, is more problematic. In an attempt to finish as much on the cottage remodeling project that occupied every hour I could find all summer-through-autumn right up to the holidays, I allowed my usual woodcutting duties slide. The few frantic days of sawing and splitting between Thanksgiving and Christmas were not sufficient to get the job done. The woodpile ended up at least two cords short of what I usually have at the beginning of the 24/7 burning season.
Luckily, this has winter has so far been generally mild. I’ve not needed to keep the woodstove cranked quite so high. But still…will remaining wood reserves outlast winter?
It’s not a matter of life or death. I can always turn on the electric heat—but I’m still concerned. I love my woodstove and its radiant heat. And like any good Irishman, I’m delighted by a monthly heating bill that’s calculated around the cost of a few tanks of gas for the chain saw.
So two days hence, come Candlemas Day, I’ll do my own modest survey — check the woodpile, estimate how long what’s left will keep us warm … then give my wife the news. And if providence smiles, I won’t care what the groundhog predicts!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]