The Vault of Winter

It was -6° F yesterday morning. I am not a fan of deep cold but as I looked at the temperature reading I was aware of something between my shoulder blades that relaxed. That’s it. Winter is here.

I think what I was feeling was the shedding of the burden of my Shoulds and Oughts, or as DH (a Catholic) calls it, my Protestant guilt.

Though the endless mild weather this fall has been painful for snow fans, on the farm there were relatively few obvious downsides. Mud, yes. A longer parasite season (in a normal year I don’t need to worm any creature between November 1 and March). And some danger to my young planted trees, a danger Robert Frost memorialized in his famous poem, Goodbye and Keep Cold. However, in general, the long, tiptoeing season gave me at least six extra weeks to work outside.

It took me a while to realize that I did not like this at all.

Spring is always hectic on the farm. Clean-up from winter, animals giving birth, new projects. Then summer kicks everything into even higher gear. The days are longer. Lucy is in camp. DH is often away on the road for weeks. Free of the structure of family responsibilities, I can labor outside from 6 AM to 8 PM, seven days a week — and often do. By September I am fried to a blackened crisp.

Though in autumn I’m racing the cold, lists in hand, in my heart I am ready for the killing frosts. I am ready for the days to shorten. I am ready for the lambs, pigs, and young cattle to leave for the slaughterhouse. And finally I am ready for the ground to freeze to iron and the snow to fall. With the arrival of winter, a heavy vault door swings shut. No more outside work is possible.

What a relief!

This fall I have missed that. I tore the rotator cuff in my left shoulder shoveling tons of sand and gravel, but still the ground remained soft (and the livestock dug fresh craters in their stalls and new potholes appeared in the driveway). The job went on and on.

With the warm temperatures and light snow cover, I could also continue using my manure spreader. Spreading on the thin snow was easy.

However, hitching to my manure spreader was never easy. I had bought the manure spreader used; the jack had seized with rust. I have never been able to adjust the height of the spreader tongue up or down to meet the hitch on my truck. This means that my truck has to be on exactly the same level when I hitch up as when I unhitched two days earlier. Given my uneven ground, this rarely happens.

As the loaded spreader is much too heavy for me to lift, every attempt to hitch up usually requires twenty minutes of puffing, using a steel post as a lever to pry things into position. On several miserable occasions, I backed slightly too far and tapped the spreader with my truck, causing the jack to fall off its block or even to collapse entirely. Twice when the latter occurred I had to resort to chaining the tongue to my truck and dragging the whole apparatus around the pasture, digging a furrow with the dragging tongue, until the spreader emptied itself enough for me to lift it into the proper position.

That’s the sort of day when you pray no Real Farmer is around to see what you’re doing.

There was more torture involved. The hitch itself is a pin hitch. This is the simplest hitch there is. Just line up the holes on truck and spreader, drop your pin in the holes, secure it with a cotter clip, and you’re done.

A pin hitch is often used on farm equipment. The assumption is that you are high on the seat of a tractor, looking down directly at the holes, and able to see when they line up. It is not expected that you are backing blind in a truck (much less one with a stake rack on the back), popping in and out of a cab and scrambling over rocks to peer at the hitch, moving forward and back inches at a time. If the holes are even a half inch out of alignment, the pin will not fit. It is very hard to move a truck only half an inch and park it. On good days I could hammer the pin home in under thirty minutes. On bad days it took over an hour of sweaty frustration.

In mid-December my friend D came out to the farm to take down his hunting camp. That morning I had struggled for forty-five minutes to hitch the spreader and had given up, my temper badly frayed. With D giving me hand signals and then standing on the truck bumper to lower the hitch with his weight, we had it done in a flash.

Though I had told D previously about my issues with the spreader I don’t think he had fully grasped the extent of the problem. Now his eyebrows snapped together in his familiar scowl. For Chrissake. What was I messin’ around with this crap for? I needed a new jack. I needed a pintle hitch — much easier, goddammit.

I listened humbly. I hadn’t realized that a simple, wheeled jack could be purchased for under $30, and though I could spell pintle hitch I had no idea what it was. All I understood was that next year it might be easier.

But for now, I decided, I was finished for the season. I had no more energy. I wanted this job taken off my list. I emptied the manure spreader and parked it next to the barn. Well done, good and faithful servant, I thought. I will see you in the spring.

I told myself I was fine with giving up. But as mild, muddy day followed mild, muddy day I would look at the manure spreader furtively, trying to beat back my guilt. I really should be spreading. In the same way, I regarded the small hillock of unleveled sand in the barn paddock. I should be shoveling. The re-opened craters in the stalls, the new potholes in the driveway. I should fix those.

But now the ground is solid ice. The spreader chains and beaters, the sand and gravel piles are all frozen. The vaulted door of winter has swung closed.

It’s too late. At least for now, anything undone will have to be left undone.



2 Responses to The Vault of Winter

  1. June says:

    You’re lucky if it lasts! It was 22 yesterday, today 46….tomorrow 51! MISERABLE.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      You are right! It’s now due to be in the upper 30s and low 40s this weekend, before plunging back below zero next week. Friends planted a lot of fruit trees late this fall. I wonder if any will survive these crazy ups and downs.

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