It’s hard to conjure green in January. While it dominates the landscape for most of the year, in mid-winter it is a fugitive from the cold, hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. We’ve just had our third major blizzard of the season here at Stonegate Farm, and only the fence lines now mark the faint contours of productive land..
Snow transforms not only the visual shape and color of the farm, but it alters our behavior as well. In Winter, we are deliberate. Our days are marked by the lines we make in the snow between outbuildings. We feed, we fill water, we warm. The woodpile, the coop, the greenhouse, the barn are all tended to as our chore-worn paths mark out daily routines.
Most of our paths through life are more circuitous and indirect, affected by circumstance. Starting a farm for me was an indirect line, a loose scribble in the margins of an established career, but it has helped me to discover something fundamental that was lacking: finding purposeful work that’s connected and deeply rooted to place. If, as John Kabat-Zinn said in his meditation on everyday life, “wherever you go, there you are,” then I am here, and plan to stay. Planting an orchard or building barns presumes longevity, after all.
Out in the snow, the footprints of deer and rabbit and cat are visible, as is the random scurry of a vole. The finches and sparrows perch like quarter notes in the limbs of crabapples, whose ice-bound fruit is pecked at. The hives hum faintly as bees cluster for warmth. They too have their winter routines.
While Winter is a stern editor of possibilities, routines are sometimes broken by chance encounters with the unexpected: An old maple, its branches burdened with snow, succumbs in the middle of the night, taking down a stretch of fence line; the alarming sight of female worker bees, who expired keeping their precious queen warm, scattered in stiff curls on the snow outside the hive. Even hoof prints along the orchard fence, where deer make their habitual circuit each night, seem deeper and more clustered, as though they’ve begun to nose the perimeter of the orchard with curiosity and hunger. They could strip the bark off an entire planting of young fruit trees in one fatal, ravenous binge.
The chickens don’t get out much in winter. They don’t like the frost biting at their feet, and with nothing to scratch but snow, there’s not much point. May as well hang out in the coop, lay a few eggs, crow and squawk a bit, fight over a perch. I’ll come out and throw them some scratch, or freshen up their bedding with new straw, harvest eggs for the weekly egg share. I could be the most exciting thing to happen in their day, and that’s not saying much. At night, the coop glows like an ember with its 200 watt warming light, and inside the chickens are fluffed up and roosting in their brightly feathered duvets.
Before Spring turns down the bed of snow, the boot-stitched lines that mark the back and forth of winter work and the hours of obligation will widen, as will our ambitions. We know how the growing season will overwhelm us with possibility and choice making. For now, the winter simplifies, letting ambition hibernate too.