The Cabin Chronicles—January 2014
We’ve been watching the ice form on the bay. First, it was lacy white with swirls, as if the wind had figure-skated across it. Days later, it was a solid gray with fog moving like dry ice along the edge where it met the water. Then it was white with new snow, glistening in the sun next to the gray-blue waves. It stayed that way for weeks. Two days ago, a big storm brought wind that broke it into puzzle pieces that crashed against the shore all night long. It sounded like the ocean.
Now, it is mid-January, cold and gray. The bay is once again frozen and thick with snow, like a field instead of lake. Temperatures hover around zero, dipping lower early in the morning. The wood stove is fed through the nights. The upstairs has finally warmed after our holiday absence. What usually takes twenty-four hours, has taken a week. I sit at the top of the stairs in a small landing, the warm air wafting up between the balusters.
It has snowed all week and the metal roof is piled with snow. Every now and then, great clumps slide noisily from the porch roof toward the lake, landing with a thud. The morning sun is more direct there on the east side. The snow in the flower bed below grows higher each day, now nearly reaching the porch. On the opposite side of the house one heavy scalloped swoop of snow hangs in front of the kitchen window, slipping just a little each day. At first it was a novelty, a bit lovely. I took pictures from both inside and out as it grew longer and curled toward the window like an untrimmed circus-performer fingernail. I captured its icy underside frozen with the imprint of the metal roof pieces. Now it feels as if I’m trapped in a snowbound Volkswagen bus as I work at my kitchen sink. I fuss about it, threaten to go out and knock it down, but the path under the window is blocked by the towering woodpile stacked close to the door. Eventually Rex takes a long board out, wading through the knee-deep snow of the elevated flowerbed, and stretches toward the window to knock it down. Since it continues to snow, it has begun gathering again.
Just staying warm seems to be our task right now. I dress in layers, sit under a plush Sherpa-lined blanket and read, listen to music, and crochet. I am lazy and must force myself to stir from this cocoon to complete a few daily chores like cutting up the fruit for breakfast and making our dinner. I’m nearly hibernating. The neighborhood road, though plowed, is covered with packed snow and ice, making walking treacherous. If the temperature rises, I stretch the rubber-and-metal cleats over my walking shoes and carefully make my way up out of the driveway.
As the woodpile by the kitchen door shrinks, Rex bundles up to replenish it from his store in the garage. He has another load being delivered split next week . . . so he has to be out only long enough to stack it. Most mornings when it is below twenty, we turn on the furnace for a couple of hours to warm the kitchen and bathroom, and help warm the main gathering room. Only the wood stove is effective in heating this space and its upstairs. On these days “warm” is 63 degrees—if there is no wind. Some mornings the bristles on my toothbrush are stiff as I lift it from its glass holder on the outside wall . . . and the windows are so thick with white ice inside that you could scrape a message with your fingernail. These are the only windows downstairs without the thin storm windows that were installed by the power company decades ago. We took them off these bathroom windows so that we could swing one out for fresh air year round. None of the little windows upstairs have storm windows.
It is on these frigid winter days and long frozen nights that I think of the women who lived here before me. Were they hardier than I am? Braver? Or did they not expect comfort always? The answer is probably “yes” to all three. This cabin would be considered a summer place today, no insulation anywhere, simply log walls fitted with strips of wood on the inside, and old chinking material on the outside. A 1900 hunting lodge. Its chinking has been patched over the years with all sorts of materials— cement, sawdust mixtures, rags, newspaper, yellow spray foam. Still, the wind finds its way between the logs.
Our winter nights are dark and long calling to deep places in me. I read and write and ponder. I hope I will bloom like Annie. We are relieved when the internet and television are connected after three days.
It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting. Annie Dillard—Pilgrim at tinker Cree