Ah, Winter!

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Fifty years ago winter was still pretty much the season of discontent. Time out of mind poets had abused and libeled it. They said that winter brought snarling gusts to nibble the juiceless leaves. They charged that plague and pestilence came with it. Every mile was two in winter. It tamed man, woman and beast. He who passed a winter’s day escaped an enemy. A sad tale was best for winter.These bleak opinions were not those of young people. Boys and most girls might take the other seasons in stride but they really looked forward with joyous anticipation to winter. Winter commonly gave advance notice of its coming. Spring might break out all at once. The Fourth of July, no matter the weather, meant summer. The very morning a thin sheet of ice was detected along the river banks, or in the watering trough, was fall. But the enormous drama of a northern winter gradually built up through minor flurries of snow to fulfill its promise with a thumping great snowstorm. The first day of good sleighing, that was the first day of winter.

Winter seemed always to herald its approach in late afternoon. The sky turned leaden overhead, and as black as thunderheads on the horizon. Then it began to spit snow, which meant that a few large flakes, soft as fireweed-blow, began to circle and fall leisurely out of the void. These were the (lakes one could examine closely and with astonishment that no two patterns were just alike.

Then, the brief twilight swiftly became night, the wind stiffened, the flakes multiplied and soon you could see neither river nor barn, though you could actually hear the snow falling, a sound that no poet, not even Whittier who loved winter, has yet put into suitable words. Winter was coming down from Canada. Never did the house seem snugger than when the flakes started piling up against the window panes, gleaming white in the mellow light of kerosene lamps.

Next morning was the magic. Before your eyes was a new white world. A vast silence covered it with mystery. Everything was different. You stepped out into the infinite hush with the uneasy feeling that this strange world from under a blanket was asking you a question you could not quite understand. Meanwhile, the storm had gone back into its hole on the other side of the mountain, or wherever it was that storms went, leaving no trace of the well-worn path to the spring, turning the stone fences into ranges of hills, converting stumps into grotesques, and making no less than a wonderland of the sugar place, with burdened maples hanging dazzling arches above the small firs that had become Christmas trees.

The matter of sound was queer. A good rousing shout was so muted it could scarcely be heard across the meadow. The new brightness was such that when you went into house or barn it was as if you had stepped from noon into midnight. For a few moments you could see nothing; you understood what elders meant when they spoke of snow blindness.

All of this, and much more, was high drama to country boys in the early years of this century. Sudden change makes drama. Winter in that era, before the automobile, changed everything-food, clothing, transportation, work and play. Even death seemed to come oftener, too, but it was different because the end of a funeral was a tomb and not the rock-hard ground.

Above all, winter was still the time of the sleigh; and the country roads changed overnight from a more or less flat surface to two deep ruts in the snow separated by a continuous mound a foot or more high. It it were a team, each horse walked or trotted directly ahead of the sleigh runners. If single, the shafts were set off center to permit the horse to move in the left rut and thus not be obliged to break a path in the middle of the road. Turning out for another rig was to be done cautiously; a horse who stepped belly-deep into snow might become intractable.

 

No sleigh was complete without a buffalo robe and, in zero weather, a freestone that had been heating all night on the back of the stove, then wrapped in newspaper and put on the floor of the sleigh to keep your feet warm. Bells took on great importance. Many sleighs had a bell fastened to each shaft, though the classic sound of winter emanated from a whole string of bells of graduated sizes and tones, that formed a belt around the horse. These were the jingle bells of the old song. Fully as musical were the big heavy bells that were hung, one from each horse, on working teams. They came in pairs that were carefully tuned to produce a chord of depth and great resonance. A straw ride in a bobsledded wagon body holding anywhere from ten to twenty people, commonly carried more bells than the Swiss musical act on the Chautauqua circuit.