Saturday, December 5, 2009

Too Soon Snow

The weather forecasters are calling for five to nine inches of snow tonight, with colder weather ahead and the possibility of an even more serious storm in five days' time. The coming of the snow and cold means that this and succeeding snowfalls aren't likely to melt away until March, unless this is a December without much snow at all. An early snowfall in October (I have seen them as early as Columbus Day) or November will melt, but December's snows can pile it on or, worse, melt halfway and then freeze to ice under foot, requiring a good deal of attention when walking about. The alternate freezing, snowing, thawing, and icing can last for weeks.

And so the possibility that the ground may be covered from this evening onward for a few months required me to cancel my planned reading and writing in favor of choring about, as my 140-year-old acquaintance Newell Cotton put it. More on this unusual companion later. Choring about meant wrapping the young apple trees trunks with their plastic winter guards. It meant cutting down a few trees in the wet area down the hill behind the house. Most of all it meant carrying wood from the pile that is still outside over to the storage area on the porch--three cartloads worth, each taking a half hour to load, haul, unload and stack. When the wood in that storage area is used up I will probably need to haul wood over from the barn because what is left of the wood pile behind the store will be frozen over. Then next summer I will put the wood from that pile into the barn where it will dry again and be ready for the winter. But I expect to be able to spend more time on the wood overall, because unlike this fall, when I have been traveling to Providence and coming to Maine only on some weekends, next fall I will be on leave from teaching as I enter a phased retirement which will require that I teach only in the spring semesters. I look forward to being able to spend more concentrated time here in the fall, which is surely the most beautiful season in this state.

Oddly, as the first flakes of snow fell this afternoon, the mail brought the Fedco seed catalog, with its confirmation of the late tomato blight that caught my ripe tomatoes before I could harvest most of them. I had thought they'd escape it, because my potatoes did. But according to Fedco, this past growing season was the worst in Maine in the last 40 years. I can believe it.

The weather forecasters usually get excited by the first significant snow storm of the year and they tend to predict more than what falls. But generally the winter forecasts are more reliable than the summer ones. I can only attribute the problems with the summer forecasts to a bit of wishful thinking, or hoping, applied in this case by the forecasters to the tourists who come to the state of Maine to enjoy the summer. Tourists want optimistic forecasts, days that are partly sunny, not partly cloudy. A spell of fog and rain, which can sometimes last for a week or more here, is not likely to bring them in; and although it's hard to believe that the forecasters have one eye on the weather and the other on the tourist bureau, the forecasts in the summer behave as if they do. 

A word about the aforementioned Mr. Cotton. I came into possession of some diaries kept by this man, who lived on a farm in Grange, New Hampshire, near Lancaster, way north in New Hampshire but at about the same latitude as my place in Maine. He is not a relative of mine. I imagine he might be a descendant of the Puritan John Cotton. The diaries run from 1888 until 1900. I spent some time this summer reading them, and I will consult them as I move through the seasons. 

Mr. Cotton was a small farmer who, when the diaries I have began, was living on his parents' farm; in a few years he married, and brought his wife to live with his family there; gradually as his parents grew older he bought the farm from them, while they continued to live there and he assumed the major responsibility for operating it. And so the daily diaries are filled with farm doings--what a northern New Hampshire farmer had to do to scratch out a living in the last years of the nineteenth century. In this case it appears that Mr. Cotton spent most of his time working with wood, haying, growing vegetables, making butter from his milk cows (which he sold in town), selling surplus crops (especially potatoes), and hiring himself out to work for other people--notably a sawmill operator named J.W. Whipple. He also exchanged work days with friends and relatives as they helped each other with some of the larger farm tasks.

What was unusual about Newell Cotton was that in addition to farming he wrote. Not just in his diary, but he wrote news items for local papers, as well as short non-fiction pieces for newspapers in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. He also attempted to write stories and longer pieces of fiction, and had some of his stories published. I am on the trail to track them down. He read considerably--fiction, mostly, but also history. His diaries chart his ambitions, successes, and failures as a writer. Also, unusual for diaries in that time, he occasionally discloses his feelings. Given his busy schedule, as a farmer, and a father of two daughters, he found time to write chiefly on Sundays and rainy days when he had finished "choring about." I have searched for information about him--when he was born, when he died, and so forth, but have turned up very little. My recollection now, without consulting the diaries, is that he was born about 1870. 

The Cotton farm usually had snow by December 5. The winter months' work mainly involved wood, particularly chopping and splitting it up "by the door" -- just outside the house, I assume. I don't know how many cords he went through in a winter, burning wood in fireplaces to heat his house, but the usual amount was 14 cords in New England. Given his location, he may have burned as many as 20. That is a lot of wood to work up every year. Thinking about it makes me realize how small a job I had in carting all that wood to the porch. The wood stove here is far more efficient, the house is laid out in a way that the heat goes upstairs, and of course I have a backup oil furnace. For Mr. Cotton and his family, it was much harder. 

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