Sunday, January 12, 2014

Now in January

Town truck sanding - again

At nine last night, the town truck rumbled by. The throaty roar of the engine and the clatter of tire chains alerted us first, and then headlights and flashers probed the close darkness, slashed through still driving rain, and momentarily swept away the press of night.  The sander whirred, flinging rough gravel onto our ice-slicked road.  Monty made a leap for the draped windows, barking to scare away the monster, while Hannah, sage old girl at nearly fourteen, raised her head and gently woofed before turning her face back to the fire and settling into sleep.   And then it was gone, inching down the glassy two miles of our dead-end road, and the rain and blackness closed in again.
Winter blew in late this year and quickly made up for its tardiness, dumping fifty-eight inches of snow – almost half of an entire year’s accumulation – by Christmas, and then freezing it solid with temperatures considered extreme even for far northern Maine.  For a week, then 10 days, the thermometers barely cleared zero, and heating oil trucks were everywhere, dashing from house to house filling thirsty tanks.  We were nearly paralyzed with the continuing cold, and that was before the Polar Vortex came whooshing south to embrace most of the country. 
Usually, January brings snow, big snow, and we brace for being buried, sometimes up over the window sills.  We watch the sky, sniff the air, test the wind and wait.  It’s not unusual to have a bit of snow every day here in the far north, especially in January which usually is the coldest month.  Polar fronts push in from the northern most parts of Canada and beyond and small storms embedded in the fronts mean frequent light snowfall that usually blows off roads and sidewalks yet adds to the depth of the snow cover.  More nights than not, we go to bed with clear star-spangled skies and awake at dawn to find a dusting of sparkling white.  But things change for the big storms, and we are always alert to them so we can be off the roads and home with the wood box stacked with lengths of maple and birch and beech and the  oil lamps filled, the wicks trimmed, just in case.   If we have warning from the weatherman, we dash into the grocery for milk, a loaf of bread, and any other essentials that we might need throughout the storm.  I am always amused, though by those people who rush up and down the aisles piling food high in the carts, preparing for what always seems to me the end of the world.  Apparently, they have missed the reality of modern plows that quickly clear away the white stuff and in short order make our rural roads passable.
Clearing roof snow from the drive
We can usually tell by the first flakes what type of storm it will be.  Little flakes mean a big snow while the bigger fat flakes mean little snow, although the driving can often be trickier after a storm of fat flakes.  That’s because such snow is usually just a bit wetter and can be slippery for driving.  When a storm starts with lots of tiny flakes coming down every which way, and the wind keens peculiarly around the eaves, we know it is likely to be a big blow.  We pull the shades and drapes and settle in as snow drifts into the corners by the garage, gathers along the window panes, and drifts in under the back garage door.  We are happy with PBS on the television, a game of Boggle, or taking a good book to bed with the dogs.  The house stands snug and secure although the wild winds that often accompany big storms rattle and shake it, and whine at all the windows.
Back yard
This ice that has blanketed our world so unusually is both boon and curse.  The roads and driveways are glassy beyond imagining this far north, and so we approach outdoor activities with caution.  Even the dogs know that this is nothing to fool with.  Hannah tiptoes carefully along the edges of the glass paths in the backyard, and Monty gallops over the now packed snow in a mad fury of running, but screeches to a halt before he too gingerly steps onto the pathways and back to the garage.  The rain that brought the icy conditions also cleared the snow off the compost pile and made the discarded vegetable and fruit parings, the stale leftovers of Christmas baking more accessible to the jays that wage daily wars over the provender.  All morning, the skittish ravens have even been visiting.  They come in on a smooth arc from high against the gray clotted sky and land with a hop and a jump on the top of the pile.  They are only there a minute, snatching up a delicacy in their large thick beaks, and then are off again. 
Bared compost
I suspect they are courting for the ravens appear in pairs, often with a solitary bird following at a distance, and wing their way across the sky in a series of loops and dives, arabesques and pirouettes, perfectly synchronized.   It is reminiscent of a waltz.  We love having the ravens, and in the first few years we were here, one pair of the usually shy birds attached itself to us after we began feeding them.  Charlie, as we named the male, and Chatty, the female, became so comfortable with us   that we could actually call them by name and they would come and check the feeding station where we left bits of bread, chicken livers, leftover meat fat and scraps.  They would swoop down, snatch it up and be gone in a flash.  For awhile we thought we were the only ones feeding them, then distant neighbors told us that they too had managed to coax the pair in with bits of stale bread, donuts, and other toothsome delights, and we realized they had a regular route that they checked every day.  The practice went on for several years, then one year, Charlie showed up injured and though he limped his way through that year, neither he nor Chatty returned in the fall, in spite of our efforts to call them in.  We have not been able to befriend another pair since, but we love watching them fly overhead squawking and clattering as they wing by, and are delighted that they have begun plundering the bounty of the compost pile gives us hope that we may be able to coax another pair to make our house a feeding station.
Sugar scrub ingredients
With the cold and ice, we resign ourselves to indoor activities. I spent the better part of yesterday making lemon sugar scrubs and today am baking; a loaf of bread, cookies, and hot chocolate cupcakes.  The cookies and cupcakes are for colleagues at the college, especially one young man who rescued Kasey’s computer after the smallest boy accidentally spilled water on it. I’ll bring him home baked goodies for a few weeks in payment for his generosity.  The dissertation also keeps me busy, along with prepping coursework for the spring semester that begins this week, ending a month of freedom.  Bruce has begun sorting vegetable seeds for germination tests and soon the kitchen table will be lined with plastic trays filled with seed swaddled in damp paper towels.  We test leftover and saved seed for germination before we put in our final order with the seed companies.  The dogs loll about in front of the fire or curl in their chairs, reluctant to venture out into the icy world. 
Lemon Sugar Scrub
Hot Chocolate Cupcakes
I have to admit that I am cheating by using the mix, and any really good devil’s food cake recipe is just as good, maybe better.  This approach saves time.
1 box devil's food cake mix (about 1 2/3 cups)
1 cup water
½ cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1  container vanilla frosting
1 cup marshmallow creme
½ teaspoon unsweetened baking cocoa

Bake the cupcakes using the package directions, and cool completely.
Then, whip together the marshmallow crème and the frosting.  Place the frosting in a small, reusable plastic bag and cut off one corner of the bag.  Pipe three dollops of frosting on each cupcake and sprinkle lightly with unsweetened baking cocoa.

In January, the days lengthen, stretching toward spring.  The sun, when it appears between storms, is warmer, and in the evening, the western sky is a kaleidoscope of color: pale yellow and a soft green, warm peach and garnet red all set against sooty grey clouds.  The shadows along the edge of the woods stretch farther and deep blue across the white fields.   At night, the sky is diamonded with stars. The wind quiets and across this wild land, the air is still enough so that when we venture out in search of Northern lights, all we hear is the pulse of our own hearts echoing in our ears.

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