Welcome back to Magnetic North, where my faith in the wooly bear caterpillar has turned to rock solid belief.
Some months back I found a solid black wooly bear caterpillar on the chicken coop steps. Reporting this stunning news in my radio commentary brought the usual comments -all denying that caterpillar colors do not a winter foretell. Well, you scoffers, let’s have a little respect for the little guy now!
Remember that bone-splitting cold snap last month, huh? And now? Now, as we are caught with our mukluks still in mothballs? Mother Nature dumped an inch of snow an hour on us in some spots along the shore. My personal best - drift-wise - was only 18 inches. But that was before my snow plower pushed close to 3 feet of compacted snow up against both garage doors. Love the clean driveway. Just wish I could get the car out. Hint. Hint.
But am I bitter? Heavens no.
I love snow and cold. It’s just that being of a certain age, I am fed up with those downer warnings on the radio about how I should conduct myself when faced with 2 feet of snow and 5-degree weather. You know the drill:
Cold air in one’s lungs mixed with excess muscle exertion is the prime cause of heart failure among middle-aged and older adults.
Translation: Geezers, save your breath to cool your soup and get some nice neighbor kid to wield that shovel.
Well, my chickens and ducks and goats and geese need food and water and reassurances that, all evidence to the contrary, death is not imminent. Not for them. Not for this kid.
I do love winter, though. Everything looks so fresh. Clean-sheet fresh and new. The evergreen trees seem to march forward out of the forest, standing guard over their bare naked brethren until their leaves come back from the dry cleaners or wherever they’ve gone.
My mallard ducks, the ones who choose to stay the winter once the pond freezes, are true winter warriors. The small flock of nine - six drakes and three females - move around the house, choosing the least windy locale, preferably close to the heated water trough and the round blue plastic kiddy sled mounded high with chicken scratch.
One drake is a holdover from two summers back, an outcast really. He wintered in the chicken coop where he was fed well and kept warm but his plumage got dull and frowsy.
No wonder the wild birds chased him off last spring. And even though, living outside on the pond, he got just as handsome as the other drakes, still they kept him at a distance. Night after night, throughout the summer and fall he parked himself outside the coop, not wanting in, but not welcome with the wild flock wherever they got to. Then the cold and snow came.
Being a compulsive fixer, especially of critters, whether they need fixing or not, I tried for three cold nights to catch him. In the process, I named him Marty, after the old movie starring Ernest Borgnine, about a homely guy who pines for love and spends his life pretty much alone.
Well, Marty proved mighty sprightly, even taking to the air at times to avoid my clumsy grasping. Eventually, after landing face-first in a pile of snow, I gave Marty a piece of my so-called mind and gave up the effort.
Then lo, one starry night, Marty was not alone.
The smallest female mallard in the wild bunch sat next to him in the snow by the steps of the coop. He gave me that sideways, “Yo! Wassup?!” duck look as I shone the flashlight beam at him and his sweetie. She averted her eyes shyly and snuggled a titch closer to her new best friend. They’ve been an item now for a good week. Right through the blizzard.
Although in the worst of it, they took to shacking up on the deck between the house and garage. In the way of all outcasts, old Marty has grown some serious survival chops. And it looks like at least one of the wild bunch appreciates that. Plus, his plumage does fairly glow after his summer in the sun.
Time compresses in these deep winter depths. Time to really notice the critters, let alone water and feed them. I’ve hardly finished the morning chores before tuck-in time looms. Just when I have less time, everything takes more of it.
Water buckets stand in the back hall thawing. They never completely do, so a mound of ugly ice blocks is forming by the wood shed. And, instead of a simple push of a door or gate. I need a shovel most days to get into the goat corral and coop.
And even though I do love the long nights inside, after the two dogs have their last run, I put them in and wander into the dark again. If it’s a clear night, I’ll take the kick sled and do a few loops down the driveway or around the snowblown paths. Most times, I end up in the side of the garage where my three geese and retired chickens are housed in luxury amidst dozens of bales of sweet-smelling new hay.
Sitting on an old lawn chair, I wait for the geese come over, taking little nibbles on my shoelaces and at last allowing me to pick them up, one at a time, to be warmed and fussed over. Oh, they protest, but in less than a minute, a long gray neck lays languidly over one of my shoulders and one of them settles on my lap.
Imagine a goose down pillow that makes soft murmuring sounds - call me crazy, but I feel like one of the blessed of this life to be allowed this delight. I forget the shoveling, the wall of snow blocking my car, the doomsayers on the radio. And I bless the all-black wooly bear for giving us such a wonderful early Christmas gift.