Falling in love is a potent remedy. I started to feel better immediately after I met Sam. My fibromyalgia went into remission. I got 8-10 hours sleep every night I visited Sam’s cabin and I spent more nights there than home. Because I felt better I looked better. Within a month after I met Sam I had dropped 20 pounds. The swelling and bloating disappeared. My diet improved as Sam taught me to eat off-the-land and share a daily meal.
Within months after meeting Sam I looked like a new woman. I weighed what I did when I graduated from high school. From 235 lbs. in January 1996 I effortlessly dropped slowly down to 165 lbs. by spring 1997. The eczema on my feet cleared up. My skinned glowed radiantly. Muscles in my face ached from smiling all day long. I could dance again. I hiked for miles. I couldn’t wait to get naked and swim in that pond I saw frozen outside.
Sam said he liked long hair and he thought I would be even more beautiful if I let it grow.
I hadn’t had hair over my ears since I was in second grade and my mother could not get the rubber band out of my ponytail on the top of my head. Mom just cut it off. Then I think I screamed. Next, we drove straight to the beauty salon. That first Pixie cut was too close to the hairdo of Peter Pan.
Then I got a wedge haircut named after the Olympic skater, “The Dorothy Hammill.”
In the early days of graduate school during the punk period I had a quarter inch of fuzz left on my scalp. Dishpan blonde to mousy brown, my head of superfine hair was either permed, henna red, or cut too short. I finally let it grow long and thick and auburn. Healthy hair.
Sam let his hair grow, too. Golden tendrils of curls fell down the back of his neck by summer. He was hot.
The more I dispensed with any need for fashion, the more beautiful I became. Because Sam loved me I knew I looked radiant. Never one to wear makeup, perfume, jewelry or fashion accessories, I felt freed by Sam’s love to be more me. I was a knock-out wearing raggedy overalls with the cuffs rolled up to my calves, sleeveless t-shirt and work boots. I got some muscles on and toned those upper arms, thighs and abs.
For the first time in my life I gained the attention of the male persuasion. The unsolicited affections of men surprised me. I was hot. A woman approached me in the grocery store one day. “Do you know you look like Meryl Streep?” I thought she was coming on to me. When one of my former students, Adam Ellick, visited me down on the farm, he was shocked. “I have been gone two years and you look 10 years younger!” Strange men stopped me in the grocery line or at the red light waiting to cross and flirted widely.
“Heh, baby, you looking good.”
“Pshaw,” I said. I loved being loved by Sam, the man I loved. This good feeling inside made me glow on the outside. Sam was the first guy I met who was not intimidated by me, in the least. Opinionated, too smart for my own good, and set in my ways after living alone for 20 years, I’d convinced myself I didn’t need men in my life. I didn’t. I just wanted this one particular man. And Sam loved me for being me.
Burning love. February. I found his tractor sexy and when I wore an apron I could drive him wild with distraction.
Sam liked me the way I was. And the way I was, I needed to sleep. His love was my life sustenance. Go to bed early every night in February.
I call Sam Warren my “daylighter.” He gets up with the sun and goes to sleep shortly after it sets. In June dawn breaks around 5 a.m. and it stays light until almost 10 p.m. But in February, daylighting means we sleep until 7 a.m. and are done with dinner and ready for bed before 7 pm. Twelve hours of sleep during the shortest days of the season makes sense for so many reasons. Love is number one.
The first reason to become a daylighter is to remedy sleep deprivation. Many Americans deprive themselves of sleep to the point where it is more dangerous than drinking and driving. Contrary to popular myth you cannot make up sleep you lost the night before. Sleep is seasonal. In the cold winter months when the days are shorter we need to sleep more. Sleep is necessary to one’s overall health.
Today the majority of us don’t know the difference between night and day. Most of us get a rush from the speed of our contemporary everyday lives. Electricity made our natural body rhythms subservient to the clock. Time is always ticking away.
I began to think making I’d gotten sick from postmodern malaise of circadian rythm dysfunction. My fatigue and pain are exacerbated from insufficient deep sleep. Sleep alleviates most of the symptoms. The loss of night vision was my body telling me I shouldn’t be out looking around at night. “Go to sleep,” my body told my mind. My mind heard my body, but didn’t or couldn’t obey.
“When was the last time you recall having a dream?” Dr. Endo had asked me. I couldn’t remember. He said when you start dreaming again, the healing begins. Sleep is the body’s restorative process. In reading the research on fibromyalgia I learned the typical course of treatment prescribed by medical doctors included low doses of anti-depressants as a sleep aid and narcotic pain killers. The effectiveness of these pharmaceuticals paled by comparison to prescribed rest. Sleep doesn’t cost anything so there is no profit to be made. Hence it doesn’t make it into system of health care currently in place. I am glad to have had a physician who had enough common sense to put me on a medical leave and who respected my wishes not to be prescribed narcotics or anti-depressants. Instead he prescribed rest and therapeutic massage. Getting back into a healthy sleep cycle made all the difference. Sleep is very inexpensive medicine.
The second reason to live by the sun’s clock is to decrease overall electric energy consumption. If you can live by daylight there is little use for electric lights. When electric power became nearly universal after the Second World War it changed the way we did everything. With the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, electricity became available to country folks at the same price as city people paid. Night turned into day. Winter turned into summer and summer into winter. Electric power industrialized this nation. A “day” became three 8-hour shifts.
Before electricity when it got dark at night, people went to bed. There wasn’t much you could really do by candle light or oil lamps. Heating and refrigeration weren’t things you could take for granted without wood or ice. Before electricity if you wanted to be warm in the middle of winter, you had to plan years in advance to have the seasoned wood on hand, dried and stacked, hours to start the fire, time to let the house get warmed and time for tending the wood fire. Before electricity you needed a root cellar to keep produce cool in summer and not freeze in the winter. Before electricity you had to harvest ice from the pond in the middle of winter and store it in a hay barn covered in sawdust for use four to six months later.
I grew up with the expectation of an electrified life. I assume at the flick of a switch there to be light, or heat, or sound, an image displayed or a door opened. All at the flick of a switch: On/Off. The binary code built the digital universe but it can’t power it. It runs on fossil fuels and is not sustainable. Daylighting offers a natural solution to soaring energy demands.
Our very sense of time has shifted through human history from cyclical to analog to digital. In an agricultural society the sense of time is similar to the cycle of the sun, moon and stars. What has come before will come back round again. From the sundial to a mechanical time piece, the concept of time shifted from a circle to a linear sense of past, present and future.
A lunar calendar and the circle for the face of a clock are remnants of agricultural notions of time. The 19th century shifted time to the industrial concept as a mechanical measurement. In the 21st century we have shifted to the digital sense of time. This notion of time is that now exists and that’s all that matters. What came before is over and what will come next is irrelevant. What gets lost in the new digital era is the sense that the past can inform the future and that what has passed away will come around again. Daylighters don’t lose such sensibilities.
A third reason to practice daylighting is that you will live longer and enjoy life so much more. Do you fight against sleep? Is your instinct to resist drowsiness? Do you push down the urge to close your eyes and rest? Give in to these urges. When you wake up fresh from a full night’s sleep you feel better, do better and accomplish more than when you waken tired. Sleep restores our bodies. The more sleep you get, the less stress on your overall health and well being. There are those who say you live longer the more sleep you get each night.
Sam says sleep is just God’s way of letting us practice for death. When you go to sleep and don’t dream, don’t snore and don’t wake up, death brings you the deepest rest of all. When you are asleep you don’t know if you are dead or alive. You don’t know any pain, any suffering, any thoughts or concerns.
Sleep is necessary to be fully awake. Just like it takes both the rain and the sun to make a rainbow, it takes sleep to make us fully awake; death to make us alive.
When you live by the seasons, the sun, the moon and the stars, you fall into a natural rhythm of light. The shortest days of the year come in the coldest months and the longest days during summer. Our bodies synchronize themselves with the sun. Come winter we hibernate and in summer the sun’s light accommodates our extended activities.
Living by the sun daily and moons seasonally is to adopt a natural, sustainable and healthy lifestyle. It sounds so simple and yet to practice it year after year is quite radical. In February it is somewhat extreme.
I love where I live. I loved it from the very first moment I laid eyes on this place. I loved it even after the blizzard of 1993 when five feet of snow fell in one day. After traveling across several continents, I had never felt more connected to the land. Before I even met Sam, I knew there was something special about this place.
Legend is the Great Spirit left his handprint here. Some part of me believes this Indian origin tale. Scientists claim the last glacial age left its imprint on the terrain. I can see for miles and miles. No sign of man’s hand. The Endless Mountain Range rears its green, blue and grey shoulders into the sunset.
Before the Europeans arrived, this place was where the Iroquois nation convened in great meetings and spiritual ceremonies. Henry Hudson conspired with the Algonquin and Delaware and other tribes in an expedition to overthrow the Iroquois from this spot. Henry Hudson on July 6, 1706, shot the first gun the Indians had ever seen and all scattered. An easy victory but a fatal blunder. Hudson earned the enmity of the first true democratic republic; the Iroquois confederation of Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk tribes.
This land is often referred to by historians as the “Burned Over District,” because of General Sullivan’s rapacious destruction carrying out the government’s campaign to rid this region of Injuns. From the start it seems the white man’s government wanted to rip the heart out of true democracy, hoping to have stolen its ideal for a totem.
Between these fingers of God was borne the Suffragette Movement, the Underground Railroad, the Mormons, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and a variety of utopian and intentional communities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today it’s the wineries, artisan cheeseries, emerging Finger Lakes anti-haute cuisine, sheep and alpaca fiber farmers, pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef, bison and elk, and free-range chicken ranchers, organic produce farmers, Amish craftsmen, Eco-Village, the New Roots High School and family homesteaders who sustain this rural culture here.
It wasn’t the job teaching at Ithaca College that sold me on moving north. It wasn’t the reputation of Ithaca as a progressive, liberal community. It was here that attracted me. I belonged to the land.
When I took the job at Ithaca College, I fell in love with the place. Cathy Webb, a realtor, showed me Bird and Annie’s house on Enfield Center Road which she needed to rent before she could sell them another house in Trumansburg. I talked Bird and Annie into letting me rent the place even though I didn’t have the full deposit. I wasn’t even sure I had the job. When the offer came, I packed up and left the red clay of Georgia behind. This Yank was going north.
My first night on Buck Hill I woke up in the middle of the night. Bob didn’t bark but there was a floodlight shining in on us. A huge strobe light poured in through the windows on the east side of the house. I kept low to the ground, so whoever it was wouldn’t see any movement. I groped around the floor for my eyeglasses.
A full moon had risen in the eastern sky. I swallowed and took a deep breath once the focused view of the familiar moon reached my consciousness. I laid awake and enjoyed how safe and secure I suddenly felt. I loved this place. The moon would look out for me and protect me. While I would work in Ithaca, my home sat upon this hill.
Here we look each other in the eye. Everybody waves. Nobody locks their cars and half the folks leave the keys in the ignition, just in case somebody needs to move it for the snow plow.
The EPA declares the fish in Cayuga Lake to be healthy and provide good nutrition. From Kindergarten through 12th grade, all the town and country kids attend school together on one campus in the center of the Village of Trumansburg. In a local survey, residents reported the number one issue was the Village police force: too big and too expensive. Village deputies routinely set their speed traps on Main Street and stop cars moving in too big a hurry. Pedestrians halt the 18-wheelers trucking down NY State Route 96 because on Main Street they have the right of way.
There are no parking meters and sidewalks line both sides of Main Street. The paper comes out once a week but everyone knows the places for news are the post office, bank, public library, the coffee shop, and the bulletin boards in the Laundromat and the grocery store. In the Village, disgruntled citizens participate in public assembly at the NAPA Auto parts store and the Pro-Democracy group meets in the Fire Hall. In our neck of the woods, the unemployed and retired men hold daily court at the Citgo gas station and convenience store at the intersection of State Route 79 and Halseyville Road, known as Miller’s Corners.
A ridge separates the glacial waters of Seneca and Cayuga and marks the county line between Tompkins and Schuyler. It is here the Warren family farmed for more than one hundred years. Grampa Harry and his three sons cropped for seed: buckwheat, corn, barley, oats, wheat, clover. Mecklenburg, now nothing more than a Post Office, Fire Hall, Doug’s Auto Repair and the Methodist Church, once had a prosperous grain mill powered by the natural springs and creeks running into Trumansburg Creek and falling into Cayuga Lake.
Even before I met Sam Warren, I would get up and out of Ithaca as quick as I could leave my office behind. I would hurry back to this special place. Up and down Buck Hill Road, I found new animal friends walking my dog along the country roads. The wild turkey and Whitetail deer covered the same trails we did. I watched the hawks and other birds of prey soar in the gusts and streams of wind across the fields. Meeting my human neighbors took longer.
The beef cows at the Fisher’s farm came up to the fence so friendly. Sometimes they had already come through the fence and strolled leisurely on the blacktop road down towards the Millers’ farm. The Fishers had a dog named Patch. She was mostly white with big brown patches. Big and goofy, Patch loved my dog Bob and she laughed at me. Never seen a dog that could smile that wide and chuckle so.
Patch would lope around us as we walked. Some days Patch would walk all the way down to Millers and then back past her house to hang out in the backyard and play with Bob. I didn’t feed her, so she always went home before dusk. Patch taught Bob how to back into the low branches of the birch tree for a really good back scratch self-induced. A very clever dog.
One afternoon I was walking on the road and Bob and Patch ran along through the yards and gardens of my neighbors near the corner of Enfield Center and Buck Hill Road.
“Why can’t you keep those dogs out of my flower beds?” Up popped a petite gray-haired lady from somewhere in the midst of all those flowers. “Get them out of here!”
“Bob. Patch. Come. Come here! Sorry.” I said.
“You got all this space to walk these dogs and they don’t need to come through my beds.” She shook her garden trowel and stomped her feet in fury.
“Get a grip, lady. You could be living in the city where there’d be drive-by shootings and gang bangers selling coke in your front yard. This is the country and these old farm dogs aren’t going to hurt anything,” I met her wrath with my fury. I had lived too long on the south side of Chicago for graduate school and then in Georgia where I rented a duplex on a cul-de-sac with 24 hour drive-by cocaine transactions.
I had met Janet Warren, Sam’s mom. She pissed me right off. I said I was sorry. That wasn’t good enough for her. I knew I had crossed her.
Charlie Warren walked “Little Fella,” an old Pomeranian, to the corner and back every afternoon when I first moved to the hill. He introduced himself to me and Bob. Tall with a white shock of hair on his head, he smiled and made small talk whenever our paths crossed walking dogs along the road. I would see them at the grocery sometimes. Chuck always smiled and waved. Janet was cool.
Sam and I got our coats on and left my place in his pickup truck to spend the night at his cabin. He pulled right into his parents’ driveway. He hopped out.
“Aren’t you coming in?” Sam asked.
“To meet your parents?” I looked incredulous. Seemed totally premature. I wasn’t ready to face them but I couldn’t say no. I had spent the last ten days sneaking past their house to the lane that led down to Sam’s cabin.
“I can’t keep hiding you from my mother,” Sam said. “Come on in.”
Janet Warren greeted me at the back door with a kiss and a hug and pulled me inside her home. Her short hair wasn’t really grey. A natural blonde, her curly locks framed her dimpled smile. Janet’s petite frame contrasted with Chuck’s height. Both of them stood in the kitchen entry next to the coal stove warming their back sides. Chuck in his flannel pajamas and Janet in her silk kimono, they weren’t put off by my unannounced company.
“Mom and Dad, This is Jill; who I have been telling you about.” Sam made the official introductions.
The smile beamed on Janet’s face. I began to relax.
“Welcome to the Warren family,” Janet pulled me close and gave me a hug and kiss. Chuck chuckled and smiled.
Little did I know the introductions were long overdue. Everybody in the neighborhood had seen Sam’s pickup truck in my driveway. I hadn’t gone unnoticed these many days walking down the lane to Sam’s cabin. Sam’s sister, Judy, and her husband, Wayne, lived on the other side of the driveway and had watched me walked down and wondered. Everybody already knew something was going on.
I quickly discovered in a small rural community there are very few secrets. If Sam were to mess around with other ladies or go to Kuma’s for a night with the boys looking at the nude dancers I would hear about it before he could make it back home. Everybody knows everybody’s business. This kind of security in a relationship seemed foreign to me; my family had moved 7 or 8 times around Minnesota and Wisconsin before I went to college and became a transient academic. These people were born here and died here. If they went away for a period of time, they came back eventually. This land beckons the soul home.
Meeting Mother Warren legitimated our relationship in a way no wedding ever could. Sam and I could say our vows in front of an altar, but confessing our love in front of his parents was as good as telling it to God. I remember calling my mother to tell her and dad I had met the man with whom I intended to spend the rest of my life. They seemed relieved to know it was a man, and somewhat surprised I’d found a match.
Sammy Minor Warren, the son of Charles Warren who is the youngest son of Harry Warren, started driving tractor on this land when he was 5 years old. He remembers Grandpa Warren teaching him how to kill potato bugs by knocking them off the plants into a pie tin filled with gasoline. Sam still prefers his 1951 Allis Chalmers C Tractor for plowing, harrowing and planting in the twenty-first century.
Charles Warren bought this land located one mile south from Sam’s Grandfather Harry Warren’s farm down the county line on the Schuyler County side. Janet and Charlie moved into their home when Sam was born in 1951. This modest 1840 farmhouse has a bathroom sink installed when the Warrens moved there. The sink is the appropriate height for little Sammy to wash his hands; they haven’t changed it in half a century.
Located 1.5 miles south of New York State Route 79 on South Buck Hill Road our farm is halfway between Watkins Glen and Ithaca, NY. Just past where Enfield Center Road dead ends onto Buck Hill Road, you see the street sign for Deer Run Lane; a wooded one-way unpaved driveway. When you come around the curve, the woods clear and the fields open up. You can see for miles.
At the bottom of the fields lays a crystal clear 5 acre pond, millhouse, woodshed and machine shed. Deer, elk and buffalo graze in paddocks and pastures adjacent to the barn. The windmill atop the 80 ft. tower and the little turbine on the tin roof of the house catch your eye right away. On the southern slant of the woodshed and millhouse roof are banks of solar panels. Inside the millhouse is the waterwheel.
In 1968 Charlie built a state-licensed pond and Sam helped him do it. It is 18 feet deep; spring fed and covers 5 acres. Charlie picked one of the most beautiful places on earth to live. Sam has worked the land and developed the property diligently to honor his father.
Mother Warren knows how blessed she is to have her family so close to her heart. Her daughter, Judy, and son-in-law, Wayne, spent a few years in the 1970s stationed in Germany. When Wayne left the military they moved to the northeast corner of the original family farm. They still live there. Their son, Jamie, and daughter, Marti-Jo, both grown adults still live within two miles of their parents and grandparents. Sam didn’t go into the city of Ithaca until he was 12 years old, but he made up for it by traveling all across this continent in his 18 wheel rig before he returned home to the farm in 1992 like a prodigal son. He made his mother happy and his father proud.
Sam and I never married because I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe the government has any right to license or register love. The state issues you a license, but all they test is your blood. Sam already flunked marriage twice. He’d married Sharon when he was 23 years old and had a beautiful daughter, Tricia. After the baby was born, Sharon wasn’t interested in Sam and he sought the solitude of the road as a trucker.
Sam married again 10 years later to a younger woman who bankrupted him with her cocaine habit, but not until she had slept with most of his friends and acquaintances while he was on the road trucking and trying to keep the bills paid. Colette (rhymes with toilet I was instructed) bore a son for whom Sam pays child support but with whom he has never been allowed any contact. Colette’s five husbands since – the last in prison for bank robbery – have all had to pay maintenance on this child given Sam’s name. No piece of paper can make a union work. He messed up his first marriage and was messed over on his second. I was not going to be the third wife. I never intended to marry.
Initially Sam didn’t believe me. What gal doesn’t want the white wedding scenario? The ring? The ensuing babies? Likewise I had difficulty believing any man wasn’t interested in just one thing: sex. We both had a lot to learn; especially about each other. Almost 40 years old I felt as though I’d waited all my life for Sam. I was glad I hadn’t met him any sooner. I had learned to take care of myself. And Sam had taken his own time to mature as a man.
Sam proposed marriage several times over several weeks, but he shifted his proposition to spending our lives together and came to appreciate my view of weddings as an incredible waste of money. I worried the “too soon, too fast” syndrome would ruin what we had started. I was having too much fun playing Little House on Warren Pond.
There are no guarantees in life. I took a risk. I made it to 40 years old without any ex-husbands or step-children. I planned to keep it that way.
Sam Warren made many improvements and additions to our homestead over the years; from materials on hand and what we could afford at the time. Most of these projects involved creating additional heat during the coldest days of the year during February. We had plenty of wood. With the enclosure of the porch, he added radiant floor heat.
The radiant floor heat worked well in the coldest months but we found it difficult to moderate the temperatures inside during fall and spring. Radiant heat requires 12-24 hours to take full effect. A cold evening in November or April can sometimes be followed by a sunny, hot afternoon the next day. By the time the floors were really warm it would be sweltering inside. Adding old fashioned cast iron radiators to the heating system allowed for more rapid heat dispersion in the cabin when needed.
Having hot water running through the pipes in the floor can be costly if you heat water with propane. It has become quite fashionable in home redecorating schemes, but it is not always economical. Sam heated the water circulating throughout the cabin with the help of his old wood cook stove.
Nearly 20 years ago Sam found this antique 300 lb. cast iron stove in Florida and trucked it back to upstate New York. It is the center of our home. The tiny firebox of 6” X 6” X 18” can quickly raise the temperature of the cabin because of the massive size and weight of the cast iron stove. But it is amazing to see how it can also heat water. The pipes run through the fire chamber of the cook stove and circumvent the need for the propane water heater altogether in winter.
A water heater is a terrible waste of energy for the most part. Electric water heaters are ridiculously inefficient; propane less so. Most of us are so used to having hot water on demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year that we don’t realize what it costs. New fangled “on-demand hot water” systems are the latest rage for those concerned about wasted energy and expense. Borrowed from the European models, these units heat small volumes of water just before you need them.
A simpler method for controlling the hot water heater is the temperature gauge. Before taking a bath, washing floors or doing a sink full of dishes it is easy to turn the knob up to a hotter temperature (120-140 degrees) about 15 minutes before you start running water. When you are not using hot water, turn the temperature gauge down to its lowest setting. Common sense energy conservation.
In winter, Sam starts a wood fire in the cook stove. The pipes run through the firebox and it heats up the water. The water circulates through the floor and up and down re-purposed cast iron steam radiators. The biggest radiator sits in front of the porch windows to counteract whatever cold air hits us from the south.
Sam decided to add a second hot water manifold around the Ben Franklin wood stove the next year. This one he put underneath the grill we use for indoor barbecues. Pipes run back and forth above the flames of the fire. Hence, the water is heated once by the big wood cook stove and circulated halfway through the cabin before heated again on the Ben Franklin.
After ten years together, I am certain I will never be cold in the winter if I’m with Sam. He likes to keep it cozy and warm. He’s cold if it gets below 70 degrees. Once I hit middle age and experienced my own tropical moments in sub-Arctic conditions, I stopped worrying about ever being too cold again. The best part of the “change,” according to Sam, is that I always come to bed naked. No more flannel nightgowns.
When Sam built the millhouse around the waterwheel, he “remodeled” the kitchen. The old lean-to summer kitchen had nothing more than a small propane gas stove, two shelves two foot long by eight inches wide and an electric fridge. In our first year together, I learned to cook in his place the hard way.
The propane stove was new to me when I agreed to bake blueberry muffins and turned the knob to 350 degrees. After ten minutes I noticed it wasn’t pre-heating. I asked for Sam’s help in getting it to work. He opened the door to the lean-to and lit a match.
KA-BOOM! The force of the explosion knocked him back into the main room. The gas had been filling the lean-to since I’d turned the knob on.
After rushing to him, I helped Sam to his feet.
“Okay. The oven is lit now. You can get supper on,” he said, while staggering to find his usual seat on the bench. He sat down, hung his head and waited for me to make him supper. He didn’t say much about it then, but he’s told the story of how I first tried to kill him dozens of times since.
By 6:30 pm, dinner is done and we haven’t had to turn on any appliances all day. The passive solar heat is generated from the sun hitting the flagstone floor in front of the wall of triple-pane glass on the south side of the cabin. Sam started a fire in the Ben Franklin so we could barbecue chicken for supper. It is 84 degrees inside and only 5 degrees outside. The photovoltaic panels on the roof made enough power to keep one circulating pump and the electric fence going all day and night. The water running through tubing underneath the floor kept it plenty warm all day and it will stay warm all night. The sun sets. Supper is over. Time for bed.
February is the month with the fewest days, yet in upstate New York it seems like the longest. The temperatures stay below freezing and it snows and snows. Sometimes the precipitation is something we call “Ithacating”: a fine freezing mist of miniature snow pellets that are not quite hail but darn close. The freezing sting on your face is a deterrent to going outdoors at all. Even the dogs don’t want to go out for a run. One February it got so cold for so many days in a row, one of our chickens froze her feet off entirely. The hen hobbled around on stubs thereafter.
Days go by without any direct sunshine. Days of grey turn into weeks. Either there is no wind just bitter cold, or the chill is delivered by storm force gales of wind. Too cold to go out and the snow too deep to go anywhere.
Those first years together during February I spent afternoons sledding down the steep hill behind the pond dyke and climbing back up to go down again. Good exercise. I built snow people who waved at us across the pond. Cross-country skiing was another expedition in falling down. I even went ice skating in Cass Park in Ithaca to fall down more. I fell down intentionally in new snow and enjoyed making snow angels.
February is often a falling down time. There is too little money to spend because it may be a long winter. There is no money to be made this time of year. You dare not waste because the winter will last another two months, at least.
Cabin fever breaks out. The overwhelming sense of winter’s oppression sits on your chest and you just want to bolt out the door into a sunny fantasy. Sam and I have planned our escape to Bolivia. We haven’t applied for visas. Nor have we made much progress learning to speak Spanish. It’s a February fantasy.
I do everything in my power not to go stir crazy; and in so doing drive Sam mad. I sat one afternoon knitting for hours and hours on the back of a sweater. I found a mistake and ripped out inches of stitches. As I yanked it all out, Sam sat stunned and then he let go with a howl of another wasted day. Knitting taught me a new lesson in patience.
I drive him to distraction when I go in and out of the summer lean-to kitchen. “You’re wasting heat,” he says. In winter, the summer kitchen becomes our cold storage and pantry and the cool breeze rushes in whenever the door swings open and closed. This in and out and in and out sets off the energy police; Sam’s siren goes off.
“I spend all day trying to get the cabin warm and you waste the heat I make!” Sam is frustrated with my fidgety behavior. I am fidgety because there is nothing I can do without getting hollered at!
I bake my favorite Red Velvet Cake for Valentine’s Day. The recipe is an old Amish secret. You need a 365 degree oven. Sam thinks I need my head examined. He doesn’t eat sweets. Like the Amish, plain and simple is what he prefers.
Sam does love my red apple sauce this time of year. It’s the only fruit he craves. His mother taught me to use a Foley food mill. It makes it simple to cook down the apples whole with the skins on until you can hand crank it through the mill. Depending on the kind of apples I use, my sauces are light pink to dark red sauce. The Macouns and Empire Reds offer the most intense reds to apple sauce.
When the wood cook stove is hot and the griddle is dry I like to spend a February afternoon making lefse. The pleasures of donning my apron and participating in an ancient ritual of my Swedish heritage means a dust cloud of flour fills the cabin air.
Lefse is a flatbread made from leftover cold mashed potatoes mixed with flour. Small balls of the dough are rolled flat in flour and fried on a dry griddle until golden brown. Lefse can be served warm or cold. My family has traditionally eaten lefse as part of any winter holiday meal and my mother makes it best. I learned to love it eating my Grandma Swenson’s homemade lefse.
Sam thinks lefse tastes like shoe leather. He’d rather I make fried mashed potato patties from the leftovers. He’s just lucky this Scandihoovian don’t love lutefisk. (Lutefisk is cod soaked in lye; served with butter and salt and pepper, it is best described as hot slippery snot.) Feeding the cook stove sticks of wood all afternoon makes it warm enough to sweat indoors. Sam thinks when I wear an apron I’m hot.
Sam hates cold weather. It is not the cold that causes cabin fever. It’s not getting outside for too many days or weeks in a row. Getting stuck in an indoor rut and having no escape hatch is the basis of cabin fever. It is the boredom mixed with depression. There is a million things you could and should be doing but don’t really want to do.
Traditionally when cabin fever strikes it is about time for a thaw. A brief interlude of above-freezing temperatures can sometimes make things worse. The sap begins to run in the Maples about the time you think your blood is going to boil from the hardest job of all: doing nothing.
There is always more snow and cold after a thaw; that can add fuel to the fire of cabin fever. It warms up just enough to make you realize how long you have felt miserable in the dreary cold and then it turns back to bitter chilblains.
I conjure up memories of the summers of 1980 and 1981 when I worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool in a Women’s Center in Saudi Arabia. In the bleak of midwinter I close my eyes and recall the heat and searing dry air of a walk through the village of Yanbu. The sun baked my bones and turned my skin a golden crisp. Sitting out in the sun for 8 hour shifts gave me plenty of time to contemplate heat. When I wasn’t in my bathing suit at the pool, I wore long caftan gowns made of cotton or silk to create a layer of light perspiration constantly evaporating off my burning hot skin. I snuggle comfortably in my long johns and extra undershirt in front of the open fire and try to recreate the Saudi sensations of sweat. I get goosebumps.
Sam retells the stories of traveling south to Texas, Louisiana, Mexico, Florida, Georgia, and Utah. As a truck driver during the era of CB radios and the strength of the Teamsters Union, Sam gathered memories along the road that take him to a warmer place. He followed the sunshine across the nation, avoiding cold weather wherever he went.
Living on the road without a home for years wasn’t a sacrifice he regrets. It is how he could afford this homestead. It is the memories of being a free spirit touring the south when it’s cold in the north that just taunts him this time of year. That the Teamsters took money all those years from his paycheck and now deny him any retirement benefits makes him hot under the collar. Angry, depressed and bored. Not a good combination.
Two adults share 200 square feet day in and day out surrounded by snow, ice and cold. Cabin fever. Temperatures rise inside and tempers flare. Will we go crazy together?
Cabin fever usually strikes hardest when there is a soulful yearning for the death of winter. Winter is the hardest season here to live sustainably. There is little or nothing growing in the garden to eat. No fresh local fruit; just root vegetables. Too cold to do anything outdoors. Only old stories to rehash and dreams stirred by seed catalogs.
I used to think enviously about how Sam had the “winters off” as a farmer like he imagined I had “summers off” as a teacher. Farming is a year round proposition and I couldn’t believe how many things Sam did during the winter months. Seemed like he never stopped plowing when it was snowing. He fixed machines, maintained his tools, cleaned up his work bench, repaired equipment, completed a compendium of home improvement projects, read and studied schematics, invented solutions to practical problems, and made plans for warmer weather. On really miserable days, we look through those seed catalogs and have the discussion about what we are going to plant and where.
I can never wait to start planning the spring garden. It’s only February, so I start sprouts. Just experiencing the most basic stage of germination is a transcendent experience and affirms the gardener’s soul.
Alfalfa sprouts taste delicious. If you start them in a glass jar the beginning of the month, you’ll have them eaten before the ides of March. I love to jazz it up with radish, pea, watercress, and mustard sprouts. Bean sprouts and fresh farm eggs make for a delicious frittata or egg foo young in February. Every few days I start another jar full of seeds in water.
Flowering geraniums and potted herbs remind me that even plants can overwinter indoors. A transplanted cherry tomato plant wintered over on the stone floor facing a south window sent out branches and tendrils in every direction, but never flowered.
Even when plant life seems most dormant, change is happening. We just don’t always witness it while it is happening. The frost heaves stones up and churns minerals into the soil. The deep freeze is needed for certain indigenous perennials to reappear. I put my vegetable and flower seeds in the freezer for the winter.
Turning, rinsing, draining, and waiting for sprouts is a daily meditation until you can plant outdoors again. Cheesecloth and some recycled glass jars are all you need besides seeds. Even sunflower sprouts are delicious, though I hate to sacrifice my seeds for sprouts instead of waiting for the flower.
In upstate New York, February is the month that challenges sustainability pioneers who produce their own electricity. You may not see the sun all month. This is when rural life becomes raw. Not everyone has the grit to withstand winter’s vengeance.
That first February Sam had two nanny goats that kidded twins. Born on the full moon and the coldest night of the year, those four kids weren’t going to make it out there. Once you bring a kid goat indoors in winter, they are indoors until the frost lifts. Otherwise you may nurse them to health and they’ll catch the death of pneumonia because they haven’t been conditioned to the cold.
Kid goats danced around and entertained us with bottle-feedings and litter control through the worst of cabin fever the first year. You can’t leave these babies behind for Bolivia.
The following February more kid goats arrived on the full moon again. The oldest nanny, Nutmeg, had triplets. They were tiny. I sat in the barn with her as they were born. I watched in awe as my breath turned white in the midnight air. She cleaned up the first one; licking it slowly and patiently. She turned to the second one before the first one started breathing. She licked the second one and kept licking; harder and harder. The third one dropped from her loins with a thud. She licked the second one harder ignoring the others. The first kid gasped and then baa-ed. Nanny turned and stepped on it. She held the first one down and licked the head and face of the kid. She licked harder. She started sucking on its’ nose and mouth.
Nutmeg let up and turned to the second kid, washing away the afterbirth. The first kid baaed again and Nanny stepped on it. I pushed her off. She butted me away with her horns. She wouldn’t let me get close.
Nutmeg sucked on that first baby’s snout. It scared me. I grabbed the other two wet kids and hid them inside my jacket. I couldn’t get the first one away. I heard her suck the life out of it. I took the other two inside. Sam was up half the night trying to get them warm and take milk, but neither kid made it. They were too small, too weak and it was too cold.
Nanny didn’t have enough milk for three. The mother sucking the life out of a kid goat without a chance in this world was Mother Nature’s way of dealing with real problems. It was almost 20 below zero.
I wasn’t a kid goat anymore. I was in my 40s and watching that real life drama of birth and death in the barn made me get real. This wasn’t news. This wasn’t on TV. This was real. I wasn’t going to let anybody, any job, or any illness suck the life out of me without resistance. It was time to get smart. What I learned by knowing Sam wasn’t going to be found in a book in the college curriculum.
After more than 10 years together I have only begun to really learn about sustainable living. Like our relationship, understanding deepens over time. Walking this land and learning all it has to teach me becomes a more challenging and difficult curriculum the longer I am here. The intellectual challenges are tremendous but you cannot hurry the kind of knowledge gained from learning the land.
The different kinds of trees, shrubs, flowers, insects, birds, fish, fungi, wildlife and weeds — simple taxonomy of my surroundings that sustain me and yet I am still mastering the basics. Where the turkey hens lay their eggs, how a blue heron catches a large-mouth bass, whether to expect sweet cherries or not, when to watch the dance of fireflies, where the trillium bloom hide in the hedgerow, what time the deer will pass through the field and take a drink in the pond, when the black raspberries are ready and where to find them if the bears haven’t been there already, how to crack open black walnuts and use the hulls for stain, when the time is right to dig potatoes, pull the garlic, plant trees and transplant seedlings, butcher animals, or harvest trees for lumber – these are things that take years to learn.