“The sun that brief December day rose cheerless over hill of gray…”
I’ll never forget the grim smile on my father’s wind-burned face as he pulled back my bedroom curtains. Snow was falling so heavily outside that I couldn’t see the pump house 20 feet away.
“Snow tracing down the thickening sky its mute and ominous prophecy,” my father intoned with relish. I tried to look serious as he told me I wouldn’t be going to high school today. The road was buried three feet deep, so the school bus probably wouldn’t run even if we could get to the highway.
He’d sniffed the wind the night before, and gotten the team of Belgian workhorses into the barn; he always knew when a storm was coming. After breakfast, he’d harness them, pitch the hayrack full, and we’d try to get some feed into the cattle before the weather got really bad.
“A hard, dull bitterness of cold. . . .
A night made hoary with the storm,
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm. . . .
The white drift piled the window-frame.”
All day, he kept reciting lines from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snow-Bound.” When I looked it up, I was stunned by its length, and by how much he had memorized. Whittier’s subtitle was “A Winter Idyll,” but as many Westerners have discovered during the past few months, there’s nothing idyllic about a real Plains winter. The experts say global warming will bring increasingly violent storm surges, so we’d better consider the lessons we’ve learned lately, and from our ancestors as well.
“A prompt, decisive man, no breath
Our father wasted: ‘Boys, a path!’”
My father delivered that line with particular relish, even though he was addressing a lone daughter and knew he’d do most of the shoveling. When we climbed on that hayrack behind the team of horses, we knew we could make it to work outside and home without relying on anyone else. Inside, my mother surveyed her cupboards, knowing she could cook for weeks without going to a grocery store.
When friends look at the full pantry in my city home in Wyoming, they are apt to tell me -- with just that annoying hint of superiority -- that times have changed. Some even announce that they shop every day so they can get the freshest food for their families’ health. Isn’t that nice?
Other neighbors relished this winter’s blizzards for different reasons, whooping and leaping into their four-wheel drive Humongous to snowmobile or ski, and then drive to the store, with a slight detour to the gas pump. Soon, though, the fantasy began to crumble as grocery store managers explained that the coolers were empty of milk and lettuce and meat because of the storms. Because the roads were closed. Because the trucks and planes that bring food to the country’s breadbasket couldn’t get through the drifts. Because we don’t grow food close to home anymore. Because our most productive land is covered with inedible subdivisions. Because subdivisions are more profitable than cows and farms.
Heads up, folks. December was just a test. “Snowbound” may become a permanent condition. Some experts say we can stave off the worst effects if we immediately become more self-sufficient and less dependent on coal; others say it’s already too late.
Some time while your electricity is still on, find “Snow-Bound” on the Internet and print a copy to read by candlelight during the next blizzard or brownout. Within its rhyme and rollicking rhythm, it provides entertainment, as well as information about what folks used to do before we adopted “throngful city ways,” and started relying on vehicles powered by foreign oil to haul our posteriors around.
“So days went on: a week had passed since the great world was heard from last,” recited my father as he took the reins. Sometimes I imagine trying to explain kiwi fruit to him. We couldn’t even see the highway through a whiteout when he remembered the poem’s last lines:
“The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.”
“The benediction of the air,” he repeated. Bud and Beauty snorted and tossed their heads, the harness jingling, as we turned toward the corral through the blinding snow.
Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She ranches in South Dakota and writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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