I put out a round bale before dark and the cattle closed around it as if it were a campfire, their heads bowed low, steam rising from their brown hides, a circle of friends sharing a secret in the falling light. We went about our evening in the same way, quietly, purposefully as if sensing the change in the weather and we bedded down early, all of us, to squeeze all the warmth that we could from the comforters and blankets. The temperature dropped hard overnight. There were the sounds of wood checking in the trees closest to the house, random pops and squeaks high above the ground that echoed in the darkness. The dogs piled into their shelter, noses turned into their midsections to hold the warmth. It doesn’t make a difference to know that we are on our way towards Spring, or that the days already getting longer because the temperatures ahead will continue to drop and the bad weather hasn’t really settled in yet for the Winter.
I’m not sure why I slept as long as I did, usually I awaken in the darkness before first light, but this morning it was full light when my eyes opened from a dream. Outdoors the sky was as clear as a bell, blue, empty but for the cold center of Sun boring a hole in the middle of it. There was a sparkling of millions of frozen crystals drifting slowly downward, not snow, but rather frozen vapor shimmering in the white light of morning. I had planned on finishing up the load of slabs in the woodyard, cutting them to length and stacking them by the sugarhouse but it seemed like the kind of day to find something else to work on, something in the barn or the cottage where the penetrating cold wouldn’t be with me every minute of the day. No matter how well layered you are, on certain days the cold makes its way through all of them and then works its way deeper still, through your skin and flesh and deeper yet, bone deep it seems. You brush a knuckle against wood or steel and the skin peels off without you noticing, the blood crusting up until later when you come back in to warm up and the feeling slowly come back to you a little bit at a time and the blood flows warm again. Your eyes smart from it, the tears running cold from the corners as you water the hogs, even they react to the cold as they look up, imploring you with their squeals to keep the feed coming. A strange thing I have noticed when the temperatures drop precipitously like this was that the water poured into the rubber buckets froze in a perfect orb, air bubbles radiating outward from the center in perfect symmetry. I was curious about the cause until I realized that the black of the bucket absorbed just enough heat from the Sun to keep the water on the outside just above the rapidly falling inner temperature.
The equipment likewise works with less efficiency, the hydraulics sluggish, the fuel like slush until the glow plugs have had a shot at warming them. If I can do without it, I leave the tractor to rest, if not I place a small block heater on the oil pan, but even then it’s not the same machine. Once, when the temperatures had been below zero for over a week, sometimes into double digits I had no choice but to change the oil in the tractor in order to get it to turn over. The old oil came out of the drain like B grade syrup, thick and dark. Likewise chainsaws start hard and sputter out easier, lithium batteries for tools take longer to charge and hold the charge for far less time than in warm weather. Animals stick together in knots and clumps and will seek any warm spot out of the wind to soak up rays.
It’s full sun out now, just past high noon but colder than it was at daybreak. The cold snap is freezing up the last of the groundwater from last weeks melt off and if it continues according to the forecast we can begin to log the eastern boundary in a few days. The kids are bickering about some minor issue concerning New Year’s eve — we go to the local ski mountain and sled, eat chili and watch fireworks with friends — but most of it is from being inside instead of outdoors. In a few minutes I’ll head back out to wax the runners on the Flexible Flyers and inflate the inner tubes and by dark we should be rocketing down the slopes under a canopy of bursting rockets, oblivious to the cold, but it will be there with us and for months to come.