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Serious winter

At 18 degrees, cool fingers of air snake in and embrace me through my light jacket. The air is chilly but soft. Such air reminds us that it is winter, but in a refreshingly bracing sort of way. Not so at 6 below! The bite of below zero air is relentless. Your hair freezes. A nostril might freeze shut. After a while your toes forget who they belong to and stop sending you reassurances that they are still there, at the ends of your feet. Exposed skin cannot be in such air long without frosting. You begin to feel like a feckless character from a Jack London novel.This winter has shaped up into just such a subzero winter, a touch of the Yukon right here in Colorado. Yet “global warming,” they say, is upon us. Oh sure, but where is it when you really need it? On a recent subzero morning that dawned, gratefully without wind, I mounted an expedition through the snow to check the level of propane in the tank behind the house. No exaggeration, it took me a half hour just to get dressed!Out through the mud room air lock, I felt like Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the moon. Snow squeaked merrily under my boot treads as only unimaginably cold snow can. At the tank in my near space suit of clothing, I cracked the ice and lifted the tank lid with one astronaut glove. I needed my other heavily gloved hand to pull the cover off the liquid propane level gauge. But my other hand was occupied with holding the thick aluminum carabiner that holds the tank lid closed in our sometimes vicious wind. What to do with the carabiner to free that hand?Without thinking, I popped the thick metal clip into my mouth as I sometimes do – and immediately wished I hadn’t. My mouth and tongue were instantly and tightly sealed to the thing! I couldn’t even swear; it came out as “MMmmm-it!” I pulled on the thing. Feeling some tender, previously 98.6 degree parts of my mouth tear, as they did a fair impression of being super glued to the heavy metal clip; I considered my predicament and started mouth breathing. Hard. At last, the thing thawed and let go. For two days after, my mouth felt as though it had been explored with a blow torch.We’ve had weeks of below zero overnight temperatures already, and winter has nine weeks to go. But without winter would we appreciate the spring? The stars seem especially close and diamond bright in such cold and darkness. In the mountains where I’ve heard reports of 30 below, the pine beetles must be having a hard time. After years of drought, wildfire and then the pine beetle epidemic, Colorado’s forests are overdue for a reprieve.Snow and cold certainly sort people out in the 5-acre subdivision north of us. Every spring and summer, people buy homes back there, enchanted by the big views of rugged cliffs and forests. And every spring and summer, homes are available to buy, put up for sale by folks who didn’t realize that out here nature can easily modify your plans, snow you in and make you miss a day or two of work. Better keep a stocked pantry and have a foolproof wood stove for when the power is down and the furnace won’t run. It takes a lot of sorting to get people who stick out here. Winter protects us from the invasion of fire ants, killer bees, malaria – Californians.Chores certainly are tougher in winter. The animals need their water tended to daily when the cold of outer space settles in. Eggs must be gathered before they freeze. Various barn cats need their turn to be tucked into your partially zipped canvas coat. Snuggled and purring in your coat as you carry hot water to the chickens, the favored cat figures out who her friends are. But there aren’t nearly as many chores as in summer and a lot more face time with people.The rhythm of life inexorably slows. We spend time together in the cozy house by the pulsing warm heart of the wood stove. Backgammon and Scrabble come out from under the entertainment center. We see more of certain friends. A lot more when they’re stuck in the ditch, the power is out and their furnace is down. They can’t get home and home is cold anyway, so they stay with us. No worry about a tow truck; we’ll pull them out when the storm blows over. People caring for one another spontaneously and without distraction – such outreach and support was the norm a hundred years ago. Today our reliable civilization has made it rare, made it easy for us to ignore one another. Winter brings us together in need. Our surprise guests are apologetic. “No worries,” I say. “Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get. Welcome.”I like winter. Not just for long shadows, brilliant cobalt blue skies and the change in landscape, but also for how I consciously appreciate friends and more clement seasons because of it. Of course, I would still like winter if it was half as long.People talk of global warming, but this often bitter cold winter hasn’t heard of it. When I was a kid, we had “global warming.” Nobody called it that then. Those were simpler times. No one imagined way back then that you could get a peace prize for talking about global warming. We talked to each other about it though, and with eager anticipation. We looked forward to it. Of course, back then we just called it “summer.”Tom

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