“January brings the snow, / Makes our feet and fingers glow.” Sara Coleridge
Perhaps I’m pushing the theme a bit, placing a gorgeous illumination from Les Trés Riches Heures de Duc de Berry next to a couplet from the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but, as the Duke commissioned 12 incredible works of art for his Book of Hours, and Sara Coleridge wrote 12 couplets that take us through the year — well, you know what you can expect for 11 more posts.
Quick reminder: I’m taking a year to read The Stillmeadow Road, by Gladys Taber; Yorkshire Cottage, by Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley; This Common Ground, by Scott Chaskey; and Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley. Each book is organized around the months or seasons. (For details, see my earlier post here.)
Snow is a prominent feature in only 3 of the 5 books (the cookbooks barely nod to the weather) I’ve read for January. For Taber in the rural Connecticut home described in The Stillmeadow Road, the worst challenge of the first big snowfall is what kind of tires are best for driving over icy roads. Her fireplace is large enough to hang a pot over the flames to cook the evening roast, and a full woodshed provides smug comfort. She puts out feed for the birds, astonished at the tiny chickadees that “whacked away at the suet, SITTING DOWN.”
Taber’s writing is lovely, and she knows how to “see” the winter:
There is a time of enchantment in January when the snow stops falling and there is a pale blossom of color in the sky. Over the frozen pond it is lemon color, over the hills delicate green. As the sun sets, the smooth sea of snow has blue shadows on it. Shadows from the top of the hill flow to the bottom in a long pattern.
Set across the Atlantic and 30 years earlier, Yorkshire Cottage begins with the tale of acquiring and renovating a stone house just as WWII begins. In 1938, Pontefract and Hartley, who long had wanted a cottage in the Dales, fall in love with one in barely habitable condition and commit to a project that involves moving and expanding the kitchen and bathroom, adding a two-story wing, knocking out walls to install larger windows, and much more.
They also, in a fit of supporting local businesses, commit to hiring only local workmen — their mason, joiner, glazier, plumber, carter, and others involved in improving the cottage were all from the Dales area. As such, the workers had other clients needing their help (especially the plumber, who spent much of the 1938-39 winter dealing with frozen pipes throughout Wensleydale). The tub had to be installed before the bathroom walls were completed. Changes in floor and ceiling heights in the sitting room led to problems with installing the firescreen there. When war was declared, work throughout slowed down, but finally, “two and a half years after we bought the cottage, we settled in it as permanent residents.” During Pontefract’s and Hartley’s first winter in their house, the village filled with soldiers and evacuated children (including a three-year-old from Belgium), adding interest to the daily round of drills, bandage-rolling, blackouts and ambulance-driver training sessions. (And now that the second season of the new version of All Creatures Great and Small is airing, I hasten to point out that Pontefract and Hartley were about to buy their house as Series 2 begins. They weren’t exactly neighbors, but James Alfred Wight (James Herriot) could have been their vet!)
I like to think of winter as the time of potentialities. “The spirit unseen,” as Scott Chaskey writes in the brief winter section of This Common Ground, is all around — not hiding, just biding. Chaskey includes a story from the Chandogya Upanishad:
When Svetaketu, at this father bidding, had brought a ripe fruit from the banyan tree, his father said to him, “Split the fruit in two, dear son.” –“Here you are. I have split it in two.” –“What do you find there?” –“Innumerable tiny seeds.” –“Then take one of the seeds and split it.” –“I have split the seed.” –“And what do you find there?” –“Why, nothing, nothing at all.” –“Ah, dear son, but this great tree cannot possibly come from nothing. Even if you cannot see with your eyes that subtle something in the seed which produces this mighty form, it is present nonetheless. That is the power, that is the spirit unseen, which pervades everywhere and is all things. Have faith! That is the spirit which lies at the root of all existence, and that also art thou, O Svetaketu.”
Like Pontefract and Tarber, Chaskey finds the poetry in the land, but he goes further, reminding us explicitly of how closely tied we are to it. Every choice a farmer makes affects the land, the crops, the animals living on and around the crops, the people who grow the crops, those who buy and consume the crops — not to mention the future of the land itself. Yes, we’ve heard this all before. But it astonishes me still, to see how hard it is the make changes to reduce the misuse of land, given all we know (and how long we’ve known it).
But I have Hartley’s Lost Country Life to cheer me up. Her chapter on January covers water-courses, lambing time, field names, crop rotation, and even something called “camping” (a ball game a bit like hot potato, but on a much larger field) — the players, running barefoot or in soft shoes, helped level a field, so the game was encouraged. A farmer’s life today is not necessarily easier, but at least there’s no need to encourage crowds to trample the fields. Imagine the insurance risk!