Goodbye, Winter

 

As spring approaches, I find myself pondering how different Oregon winters and springs are from all the other places I’ve lived. I have a long history with winter — real winter, that is; I grew up in cold places. First my family lived in Northwest Ontario, where temperatures fall to -40° C (which, incidentally, is the same temperature as -40° F… fun fact!) or lower, at least a couple of times each winter. Then we spent seven years in remote northern British Columbia, where winters were less cold but much snowier — the snow routinely accumulated past six feet, and our downstairs windows would be blocked by snow by the end of winter no matter how many times we tried to shift the piles of snow that slid off the roof. We waited with happy anticipation for the snow pile from the eaves of the woodshed to meet the roof, so we could climb to the peak of the roof and slide off in glorious swoops.

We moved back to Ontario when I was eleven, and I discovered afresh the experience of having one’s nostrils freeze together in the frigid air. On the playground (well, parking lot, really) at our tiny church school, the girls’ mandatory long skirts would freeze stiff in the cold wind and chafe our calves during outdoor recess — also mandatory, down to -20ºC.

At the age of eighteen I moved to Alaska. I fell in love with my husband there and ended up staying for fourteen years, mostly in the Anchorage area, which niftily combines the cold of Northwestern Ontario with the snow of British Columbia. It’s not quite as cold as Ontario (or the interior of Alaska) or as snowy as British Columbia, but there’s enough of both to satisfy all but the most demanding winter enthusiast.

All three of these regions have four things in common: long winters, darkness (getting worse as you go farther north), short summers, and agonizingly slow springs.

In Northwestern Ontario, the end of winter generally starts sometime in  March, as the days slowly start to get longer. The snow gets wet and heavy. Roofs drip. Dirt roads gradually appear beneath the ice, and promptly turn to mud. Slowly, so slowly, the giant piles of snow from plowed roads shrink, and driveways turn into small rivers. By the end of March or  beginning of April, roads are often clear of snow. Of course, snow doesn’t stop falling, but the fresh snow gets churned into muddy slush within a few days of falling.

Then comes a day, perhaps sometime in March — around the same time roofs start dripping — when someone gazes out at the scrubby trees that grow in the thin soil atop the bedrock of the Canadian Shield and says, “Is that… green? Do I see green?” Someone else comes to look, and others crowd in. “Nah, you’re imagining things.” But within a couple of days, that optimistic viewer is vindicated, for the bare grey branches now exhibit a faint green tint. It’s barely visible. If you look closely at the tree branches, you won’t see leaves — you’ll see leaf buds just beginning to swell. Despite the faintness of the color, though, this promise of green signals the true end of winter. Several weeks or a couple of months later, probably by mid-May, most of the trees have baby leaves, and by the end of May roses and sometimes lilacs are in bloom. There have been instances of snow in May in Northwestern Ontario, but it doesn’t happen often. Those baby leaves are the beginning of spring.

In the parts of Alaska and British Columbia where I lived, the progression is the same, if a little later and a little slower, with one difference. The winter is so very dark further north that it’s a real occasion when the sun rises as you’re driving to or arriving at work, and when the sun is still up when you leave work. For much of the winter, you literally will not see the sun unless you’re lucky enough to have a day off that coincides with a clear day. So, in Alaska, those glorious first days of sun on your skin, rather than the first green, are the first sign of spring — even though the air is just as cold as before, and the hems of your pants get just as frozen on the way inside, and you have to scrape just as much ice off your windshield, as before.

Our family came to Oregon four years ago, fresh from the long winter and slow spring of Anchorage. We arrived early in June, after leaving our Alaskan home at the end of May. In Anchorage, the trees still had no leaves, and mud abounded. Here, June was full summer. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Grass was a happy green, and lacked that unpleasant sogginess of Alaskan grass after several feet of snow has melted into lawns. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Real summer!

The following spring, we moved from our rental to a permanent home on two acres. We moved in March, just before Easter, and we got to see the onset of spring in a way we’d never experienced before, since our rental home didn’t have a lot in the way of plants. We ooh’d and ahhh’d at each and every new flower, delighting in identifying mystery plants as they each burst into bloom in turn.

The strangest and most wonderful thing to us about an Oregon spring, though, wasn’t the abundance of flowers or the greenness of the winter grass. It was the trees. First of all, Oregon has a lot of evergreens — not just conifers, but broad-leafed shrubs too. Combined with the ivy and moss twining over the massive trunks and branches of trees and the ever-green grass, it’s never really not green here. But even the deciduous trees behave differently here. There’s no gradual onset from bare grey branches, to pale green mist, to buds, to leaves. No, these trees are already making new leaf buds as the old ones fall. You can see that barely-visible green all winter. Then, at some point — as early as mid-to-late February — the early-blossoming trees and shrubs, like plums and forsythia, burst into bloom, along with daffodils and crocuses. Soon after, you notice that the trees look a little more green — and within a short day or two, there are baby leaves everywhere. Here, spring isn’t agonizingly slow — it’s as fast as instant coffee. It lasts long enough to savor it, but its onset is as quick as adding water and stirring.

This year was a bit different than the previous three, and I found myself musing on how much I don’t miss Alaskan winters. We got snow in November this year, and we continued to get occasional snow until… well, until last week. Several times, it accumulated enough for the kids to make snowmen and snow angels. School was closed over and over — we had to readjust the school calendar to make up nine snow and/or ice days. (Do you know how many snow days we had in the Anchorage School District while I was teaching there? Maybe one true snow day over that five-year period, with another one or two days each year for ice.) Niko’s teacher told me, around the middle of January, that between in-service days, holidays, and bad-weather days, there had not been one full five-day week since mid-November.

Niko and Sofia were ecstatic about the snow. Each time flakes appeared in the sky brought a thrill of joy. For me, though, those mornings of begging the kids to slow down on the porch before they slipped on the ice, and scraping windshields, and having to sit and wait while the windows defrosted and defogged, weren’t filled with joy, but with disbelief tinged with resentment.  I’d moan internally (and sometimes not so internally),  We moved here to escape this!  Of course, the fun of seeing the kids go crazy playing in the snow was almost enough to alleviate the snow-induced grouchiness. Almost. That snow was more enticing to the kids than the best toy in the world.

And the snow made everything look so beautiful — winter flower buds peeking through the snow, branches coated with a thick layer of white, fairy lights on the tree in front of our house sparkling through the frost. It was lovely to look at. Like the kids’ delight in the snow, the beauty of the landscape was nearly enough to balance out the resentment. Still, as I chipped piles of icy snow from the porch, it was hard not to feel betrayed by the weather.

The unusually cold and snowy winter delayed the onset of spring, too. Everything is starting at least three to four weeks later than last year. Daffodils just bloomed two days ago; last year they were blooming in February. I saw one single blossom on our plum tree this morning, in the middle of March — last year, the whole tree was in bloom by the second week of February. The cold had one benefit, though — my dwarf irises and pink hyacinths, the first flowers to bloom, had not a single slug-munched petal this year, a far cry from the vicious attacks before buds had even opened in past springs.

But there is one thing — one single thing — about this longer-than-usual winter that is, in fact, awakening nostalgia. The cold winter, now (probably) ended, is finally demonstrating just one redeeming quality. The trees and shrubs have been hoarding their energy, refusing to fatten their leaf buds. Until now. Over the last few weeks of slowly-warming weather, I’ve finally seen that harbinger of spring: a green haze lightly touching all the trees — and not vanishing within days in an explosion of leaves this time. This spring, I’ve watched as the green increases oh-so-gradually. And this time, like all those years in Canada and Alaska, the green haze is true to its word, delivering spring gently and slowly. Every day I see new evidence that winter has released its grip on my little corner of the world. Slowly, slowly, buds are growing, flowers are opening, and tiny leaves are appearing here and there. It’s not (thank God!) the long process it is in colder climes, but this year, for the first time since we moved here, it really is a process. And I’m loving every single slow moment.

 

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A Lying Liar and a Singer Sewing Machine

Recently I read (and watched) a story about the first lie the author ever told as a child. Years later, the author — now a teacher — still vividly remembers the experience. Reading his story, I realized that my own first lie is just as indelibly branded on my memory.

I was four years old. It was my family’s first year living in a tiny cabin next to the Stikine River in British Columbia, where we trapped furs for income, hunted and fished for meat, and grew a huge garden full of vegetables that we preserved for winter food. In that remote place, there was no electricity, unless we used precious fuel to run a generator — something we did only on laundry days to run our ancient cylindrical wringer washing machine.

My mother’s sewing machine was a worn but elegantly beautiful foot-treadle-powered Singer sewing machine with a wooden cabinet and a painted metal head, which I called the “horse.” She doesn’t have it anymore, but I found a picture of a nearly identical machine (this one has a wooden cover that’s shown in a different photo; my mother’s allowed the top to rotate down into the cabinet) at Copycat Collector:

A beautiful Singer sewing machine.
A beautiful Singer sewing machine.

I loved the whir of the flywheel and belt and the rhythmic thump of the treadle when my mom sewed. But most of all, I was fascinated by the shining blur of the speeding needle.

My mother had been sewing one afternoon while I watched, when she found she needed something outside. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. “DON’T TOUCH THE SEWING MACHINE.”  I had just learned how to time one minute on the clock. I sat myself down on a chair below the pear-shaped wooden clock my dad had made, and kept my eyes fixed on the second hand. It went all the way around one time, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I’d been mistaken in my attempt to count off a minute. I watched again. Still no mother. Clearly, she had gotten lost and was never returning.

Tears welled up, my chin wobbled, and I opened my mouth for a hearty wail — which was stopped, abruptly, by my realization that I was not just motherless, I was unsupervised. I could do whatever I wanted. I could…I could…

I could touch the sewing machine.

I approached the shining, forbidden machine slowly, carefully. Reached out one finger. Stroked the painted design. Strummed the leather belt. Examined the shining silver balance wheel (that’s the small wheel at the end of the head, for those that care). I gloried in the machine’s beauty, now all mine. Finally, I ventured to touch the most dreaded part of the never-to-be-touched sewing machine: the needle. I slid my finger under the point, relishing the delicate scratch of the sharp tool. Then I rested my finger below the needle, on the toothy feed dogs (the teeth that pull the fabric forward), and eyed the wheel speculatively. When turned by hand or by the belt connected to the treadle down below, the silver balance wheel put a series of hidden cogs into motion, causing the needle to flash up and down. I’d seen my mother turn the wheel many times with a practiced hand, to position the needle correctly or to boost the motion when starting a seam so as to put less strain on the leather belt. I was tall enough to stretch one hand to the wheel while resting my finger under that seductive needle. My mind raced with the possibilities. Finally, motherless, I could do what I’d always (I now knew) wanted to do: race the needle.

I was positive I could do it. Surely my finger could move faster than the needle. I would turn the wheel slowly at first, for practice. But I failed to take physics into account. Turning the balance wheel slowly still caused the needle to flash oh, so very quickly, right into my waiting finger. It slashed a red furrow into the side of my finger, which quickly welled with blood. I stared, aghast. My beloved machine had betrayed me. Suddenly, being motherless lost its appeal. I opened my mouth and bellowed: “MOMMMMMMYYYYYY!”

Instantly, like magic, there she was, wrapping me in her arms, soothing my tears, prying my hand open to see the source of the blood, and demanding sternly, “Did you touch the sewing machine?”  And I, weeping with the shock of the needle’s cruelty, streaming blood from a needle-shaped gash in my finger, sobbed, “N-n-n-noooooo!”

For years afterward, I believed that I’d successfully convinced my mother that I hadn’t touched the machine. I wrestled with guilt and shame: I had lied to my mother. I had deceived. I was almost certainly going straight to hell. The experience was so wrenching — the lie, not the gash — that I never lied again. Ever. I bent the truth slightly on occasion; I evaded; I distracted and misdirected when necessary; but I never a lie. To this day, I can’t do it. It’s simply impossible. I relive the horrified, ashamed ache in my belly that came with the lie, and I just can’t manage it. And it’s all because I was betrayed by a beautiful piece of mechanical art.

Elusive Hummingbird

Hummingbirds, I thought, hibernated. Or migrated. Or something. I’ve never put much thought into what I thought they did, but I’ve certainly never seen them in winter. When my family lived in northern British Columbia, we had the beautiful Rufous hummingbirds at our feeder, zipping around like little red and green living jewels on a perpetual caffeine high. They stayed all summer and then disappeared. [NOTE: If anyone read this when it posted itself yesterday after I explicitly instructed it to publish itself this morning, you’ll notice that I have now corrected my mistake regarding which hummingbird is common in British Columbia. Thank you to my mother for noticing.]

The hummingbirds we have here in Oregon are not as brilliant in plumage as the Rufous, but they’re still charming. My best guess, looking through sites like Beauty of Birds AvianWeb, is that either ours are the Broad-Tailed hummingbird, or I’ve been seeing female or immature Rufous hummingbirds. Anyway, since they are also tiny, high-energy birds, I’ve assumed they must have similar behavior. Gobble nectar all summer, vanish mysteriously once the weather turns cold. When our feeder froze solid in November, I figured the cold plus the lack of food would prompt our own hummingbirds to hibernate. Or migrate. Or whatever.

I kept thinking that until I read a blog post by Garden Fairy Farm, “Feeding Hummingbirds During the Winter.” Wait. What? We have to feed them in the winter? Turns out, hummingbirds are migratory birds. They don’t hibernate. But some of them inexplicably hang around their favorite spots instead of migrating. Oh dear… this could explain why my feeder has been looking emptier and emptier, until there’s now only a tiny bit of red liquid in the very bottom. The hummingbirds are still here! Or maybe just one, or… Who knows? The point is, with few insects for food this time of year (yes, they’re carnivorous — another surprise fact I turned up in a flurry of research after reading Garden Fairy Farm’s post), they actually need the food I’m providing. Apparently they can survive, if necessary, on the wells of sap that sapsuckers store up (another fascinating fact), but their chances of survival will increase if they’re given an additional food source like a hanging feeder.

My poor hummingbird! I feel like a terrible bird parent. Time to fill the feeder. Maybe they’ll reward me by letting me witness their presence this time around.

Drying Fruit and Memories

This summer, as our fruit (blueberries, cherries, raspberries, apples) began to ripen, Aaron came home one weekend with a dehydrator. It’s round and shiny-white, shaped like a donut with a too-small center hole, and has four drying trays plus a fruit leather tray liner and a liner for jerky. So I’ve spent the summer’s end learning to dry fruit. My greatest success by far has been apples, both slices and leather. You can see my method for drying apples here.

Now, I’m no stranger to drying fruit. For seven years, between ages four and eleven, I lived with my family (and another family for three years, plus assorted winter visitors for the next few years) on a remote homestead in British Columbia, Canada. My father trapped during the winter, and we used the money he earned from furs to buy supplies we needed to live each year. Yes, one shopping trip per year. And we had no refrigerator or freezer. No electricity at all, except for the weekly laundry day when we

This is very close to what our machine looked like, except my mother never looked that excited to use it. Nor did she wear a white-collared dress while operating it.
This is very close to what our machine looked like, except my mother never looked that excited to use it. Nor did she wear a white-collared dress while operating it.

would start up the generator to run the ancient wringer washer – a big improvement from the manual James washer that sat out back behind a shed. Fuel had to be boated down the Stikine River in huge 50-gallon drums in our 20-foot skiff, so we didn’t use that generator any more than we absolutely had to.

With no refrigeration or weekly shopping trips, we had only what fresh food we could forage or hunt from the forest, catch in the river, or grow in our garden. I know that sounds like the life of Hansel and Gretel, pre-stepmother, but it’s what we did. And we dried or canned as much as we could for winter, since we wouldn’t have access to any fresh food once hunting season was over. I liked the dried food best – it had less mush. Raspberries. High-bush cranberries (properly known as lingonberries). Saskatoons. Strawberries. Thimbleberries. And we occasionally had crab apples from a neighbor (which here means, anyone living within a 30-mile radius). Once we even had bananas.

At some point, my dad built a drying shed. He dug a square pit, about 3 feet deep, and put a barrel stove in the bottom of it – that’s a stove made from a large metal barrel. They’re actually pretty effective. You can get kits for them, with a door and legs and hardware for a chimney. This stove was rustic looking, not like the nicer one he made for our cabin, which had heat-resistant black paint covering it and a big flat silver tray fitted onto the top for heating a giant pot of water for laundry and baths. The one in the drying shed had whatever flakes of paint still clung to the original barrel, interspersed with large areas of gently rusted steel. No one cared what this one looked like. He built walls around the pit once the stove was in, with a tightly-fitting door covering the whole front side. The walls had supports all around for sliding trays made of window screen material. We would put whatever we were drying – meat, vegetables, fruit – onto the screens, slide them in, and let them sit with the stove gently heating them until they were dry.

I asked my mom how she dried fruit before my dad built the drying shed – I was

Our stove was less ornate , white-enameled, and had an enclosed warming oven where this stove has a shelf. Otherwise, it looks pretty familiar.
Our stove was less ornate , white-enameled, and had an enclosed warming oven where this stove has a shelf. Otherwise, it looks pretty familiar.

small enough at that point that I don’t remember much as far as culinary skills. She thinks she used the warming oven in our big cast-iron range (think Blueberries for Sal, and you should have a good picture of our stove). So I’m guessing all you readers with modern kitchens, but lacking a dehydrator or a niftily-built drying shed, could still use my method for drying apples – you would just need to turn your ovens on low.

No, I’m no stranger to drying fruit. But my memories are nearly useless living, as I do, in a rural area less than half an hour from a major city. Drying fruit should be accompanied by the aroma of smoke in the air, the unique smell of cranberries (I know, I KNOW, lingonberries, sorry) ripening amid fallen leaves. Drying fruit comes with the creak of a wooden door, the rush of earth-metal-fruit-scented air in my face, the smooth glide of a screen pulling free from the rails. Using a dehydrator, after a drying shed or a cast-iron range, feels somehow artificial. Perhaps I feel I’m not working hard enough. In any case, the apples are delicious, and while I miss the nostalgic connection to my roots, I’m happy to have the ease of my shiny new dehydrator – all I need now is more trays for bigger batches!

You can click here for a more modern approach to drying apples!