January is gasping its last, while February awaits its passing—eager to push the used-up remains of this first month aside and take over. The shortest month of the twelve, and the last full month of winter.
Is it just me, or is time cranking along at a zippier pace? Not that I’ll be unhappy to see month two of the new year commence. February leads to March…and March gives us spring! So far as I’m concerned, spring can’t get here fast enough.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. We still have a bit more than six weeks between now and that glorious vernal milestone. Six additional weeks of winter. Ohio winter. Which as anyone who’s lived hereabouts awhile well knows, can be winter at its textbook worst.
An old friend always referred to this second half of the season as “winter’s downslope.” A term I initially took to mean easier going, like we’d now be coasting along. However, I soon came to realize he was speaking about time and not weather. Indicating that portion of our circular journey which takes us to the goal we’ll reach on such-and-such day—even if we have to wade through hip-deep snow to get there!
Still, when a neighbor recently asked whether or not I expected this latter half of winter to be as mild as the first, I hedged, saying I was “cautiously encouraged.” Admittedly nothing more than wistful doublespeak. But I believe it’s my job to bolster the faith by providing hope.
And I am hopeful…in spite of the fact The Old Farmer’s Almanac says weather for this region during the downslope period will be “very cold,” with an above normal amount of snowfall.
Yet spring hopes do spring eternal. This coming Thursday is Groundhog Day. The prognosticating woodchuck must weigh in with his own weather divination. Should it be a sunny day with visible shadows, we know we’re in for six more weeks of genuine winter. But if the day is cloudy—no shadows—then spring will arrive before the passing vernal equinox makes it official.
Is a whistle-pig’s opinion more valid than the calculated prediction of a venerable almanac—or the well-meaning optimism of an outdoor columnist? Nope. But when it comes to longer-range weather-speculation, I’m convinced that regardless of the source, it’s all merely a gussied-up guess.
Not exactly worthless, but not something you want to stake dodging your way past a shortfall of firewood or fodder on, either. At least not historically.
Not all that long ago wisdom among country folks reminded that if a man found “half his wood and half his hay” unused by the first of February, he could expect to come through the remainder of winter safely. This was not only practical survival advice, but afforded real value as a mental health tool.
The rural dweller was isolated by both landscape and season. Endless gray skies and weeks of cold and snow caused a fellow’s self confidence to weaken. When winter’s heart beat fiercely, a case of doubts often assailed even the most experienced countryman.
As the primary adult responsible for the continued wellbeing of his family, it was hard not to worry. With February’s winds shrieking around the eves and the candle sputtering in the wick, wouldn’t you want to know whether you and yours were going to make it?
So at this critical calendar turn on the seasonal road, a fellow donned coat and hat and headed to the barn and woodshed to take stock. He checked his hay and fodder, figured the remaining cords of firewood against what he’d already burned. He then generally had a look in the root cellar at the stores of potatoes, onions, and turnips, and counted quart jars of home-canned beans, tomatoes and maybe peaches. The smoked hams hanging in the attic were examined along with nearby strings of dried apples.
It’s really impossible for us to grasp the emotional uplift such a satisfactory stock-taking once imparted. Or to understand the sense of security it delivered. Few of us nowadays live lives closely intertwined to nature and season.
Still, you may have noticed the earlier sunrises and lengthening days. Not quite yet an hour more—but both dawn and daylight length will have increased conspicuously by the time we reach brief February’s end.
So here’s something you can believe: increasing light adds heat…heat melts ice and snow, while warming the soil…and warm, moist soil triggers the awaited green resurrection.
Our downslope turn indeed leads to spring!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]