Outside in the cold
The cold snap last week kept a lot of people inside.
The animals, though, seemed more prevalent than ever.
We actually started spotting some of the rabbits that have been tracking all over the lawn, their dark bodies streaking through the half-light of early morning or dusk. They swipe bits of hay from the oxen to nibble on and to line their burrows. When it’s really cold, we leave them little piles of rabbit food or carrot and apple peels at night.
One night last week, a few deer hunkered down in the front garden, leaving big sleeping-deer prints where the collards had been. They dug into the snow to find some of the collards we never got around to picking, and helped themselves to a midnight snack.
Bald eagles used to visit us in winter from their homes deeper in the Adirondacks, drawn to the open waters near the hydro plants where the fishing stays good all winter. The fishing is so good that the eagles are now year-round residents, raising their young on the shores of our lakes. We see them all year, but they are more visible in winter.
That’s partly because once the lakes freeze, the highway crews slide roadkill onto the ice for the eagles — and the crows and coyotes — to eat. It’s a neighborhood delight to see one or two eagles close up, sometimes sharing a meal with a couple of crows. The coyotes are harder to spot, but easier to hear in the middle of a cold, clear night.
We’re seeing more owls this time of year. The snow buntings have returned, little visitors from the tundra who consider our frigid temperatures a warming trend.
Our outdoor chickens, that half-wild flock that refuses to move into the coop with the more domestic hens, have taken to sleeping in the ox shed with our elder ox. Even in a partially open pole barn, he creates a lot of heat for the chickens, apparently more than they were getting in their former haunt in the rafters of the barn.
We baby our animals when it’s very cold — extra layers of bedding, extra water, delivered by bucket so they can drink before it freezes. We make sure they are well-fed and out of the wind, and they seem to manage just fine.
They don’t complain, unlike most of the humans in the United States, and in my own house.
Last weekend I asked my son to shovel some paths around the house, from the back door to the chicken coop, from the front door to the ox shed.
He informed me it was too cold to work outside.
As you can imagine, this response did not please me, especially since I had just gotten inside after taking the dog on a two-mile jaunt, shoveling the driveway and feeding the animals, including the baby oxen he refers to as his own.
“Too cold?” I asked him, making faces that indicated a high degree of skepticism. Clearly his Floridian father was behind this attitude.
Yes, it has been cold lately, very cold, even colder than it’s been in a few years. Still, it’s winter and we live in the North. I don’t think a cold snap in January should come as any real surprise.
What is surprising to me is what seems like a growing overreaction to the cold. On Monday, the governor of Minnesota closed all public school statewide because of sub-zero temperatures — the first such statewide order in 17 years.
The average temperature in Minnesota in January is 8 degrees, according to the National Climate Data Center, so you’d think they’d be used to cold weather there, at least.
On Tuesday, the Albany School District closed schools because of single-digit temperatures. It’s true that it’s been windy along with cold, and that can be dangerous for kids who have to walk to school. Maybe the schools are worried about the number of kids without proper outerwear.
It’s a worry in my district too; I remember during a cold snap three or four years ago, the school nurse walked through the school handing out knit hats. She worries about everyone.
Still, it seems that with reasonable precautions — hats, gloves, limiting our time outdoors — we can live with the cold, manage to get to work and to school, and maybe even take a walk outside to see what the animals are up to.
Dressing warmly is key, as I try to explain to that son who found it too cold to shovel. He has to be reminded to wear gloves when hauling water buckets to his baby oxen and has to be reminded to wear a coat when heading for the school bus. This is because middle schoolers are too cool to get cold, unless asked to shovel.
He also knows that I’m the one person in the house who actually enjoys shoveling, especially when the snow is as light and fluffy as it was last week, before the thaw and refreeze turned everything into a skating rink.
I also enjoy being outside when everyone else is afraid to open the door. It means I get to see all the other creatures living out their lives despite the winter.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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