February brings the rain,
Thaws the frozen lake again.
Sara Coleridge’s couplet for this month describes what’s happening outside my window as I write. Yet this rain, which has washed away all traces of Winter Storm Kenan, could turn to ice as the temperatures drop tonight. To be expected. Fitting that the shortest month of the year could bring the widest variety of weather. But at the end of four long weeks, our reward.
Snow is at the forefront of the February chapters in A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle) and The Stillmeadow Road (Gladys Taber). Even Dorothy Hartley, in Lost Country Life, reminds us of the challenges medieval farmers faced during “the most uncertain month of the year when urgent work on the land may be hindered by bad weather.” For Taber and Mayle, in their modern homes where the worst calamity is a frozen pipe or inefficient heating, heavy snow is a minor inconvenience.
Mayle, in the midst of a major kitchen overhaul, decides to order a stone table-top for his rear garden — he wants a table large enough to seat eight comfortably — and upon delivery it looks like something from Stonehenge. An unexpected challenge arises: how to move the slab from the front to the rear of the house. It weighs more than 600 pounds, and can’t even be rolled because it is rectangular. Days later, he realizes the half-dozen workmen remodeling his kitchen could do it, but by now the porous stone has filled with water and frozen to the ground. The six of them together can’t budge it at all. It will have to stay in situ until a thorough spring thaw.
He also feels the isolation of his location, near his small town: “Deep winter in Provence has a curiously unreal atmosphere, the combination of silence and emptiness creating the feeling that you are separated from the rest of the world, detached from normal life. We could imagine meeting trolls in the forest or seeing two-headed goats by the light of a full moon.” At the end of the month, with the work on his kitchen nearing completion, he feels a mild breeze and hears dripping water. Outside, he “found that the seasons had changed. The stone table was oozing water, and spring had arrived.” We have yet to learn how the table-top is relocated.
At Taber’s house in the Connecticut countryside, there is so much snow that her dogs must be rescued after sinking to their eyeballs. Then a thaw, which she calls a miracle. “It is the curtain going down after Act I in New England,” she writes, “for we shall have more winter up to April. But now snow melts, icicles drop from the well house, the air is suddenly silken soft. Out we go wearing no mittens and wearing our summer jackets. A kind of intoxication sets in.” The thaw lasts only a day; overnight, “the long hand of Arctic cold reached out,” temperatures dropped, and the stove is once again lit and running non-stop.
I like the detours Taber takes, following thoughts as they meander. On one such tour, she looks at her fire and imagines our “earliest ancestors” struggling to keep warm and sheltered through long winters. She mentions the art in the Lascaux caves, amazed that these people found time to create it. Then a brief story involving her father, who was a geologist, and another about her mother, one of whose rare gifts was “not contradicting people even when they were wrong.” On she goes, to consider “No people” (i.e., nay-sayers), her own weakness as a “Yes person”, the art of conversation, and her preference for Keats over Shakespeare as an imaginary companion. There’s more, but I’ll spare you. The leaps from topic to topic are dizzying yet enjoyable, and reading her chapters is a bit like helping myself to a spoonful of each item laid out at a tremendous buffet.
But back to Hartley and those medieval farmers. Her February chapter is about “keeping the land in good heart”, with a long section on manure and other soil treatments such as chalk, lime, or marl (a soil mixture of clay and lime). Horse, cow, and sheep dung were especially valuable, and even guano, where available, would be used.
“One waste product,” Hartley writes, “that was not wanted on the land was goose dung.” Land grazed by geese could kill sheep, and only modern research revealed the cause: liver fluke, carried by water snails who lay their eggs in the grass near rivers. I’m not certain where geese come into this cycle unless it’s just that they also graze near rivers — but whatever the reason, their dung was not used as a fertilizer, and sheep were kept off land where there were goose droppings.
Hartley provides some interesting details on building hedges and dikes as boundary markers, including who owns which side of the hedge built between two properties. Complicated, but it comes down to whoever built the hedge owns the whole thing, including the off-side, where the builder probably shoveled some dirt from his side. But, more interesting to me, is Hartley’s comment that hedges (and, although she doesn’t say so, stone walls) are the result of the enclosures. Starting in the mid- to late-1500s, landowners found they could increase their profits by removing the tenant farmers and raising animals rather than crops. This trend increased drastically during the mid-1700s to late 1800s, resulting in vast numbers of tenants losing home and livelihood in a matter of days. If you want more information about how the trend affected farming, poverty rates, industrialization, emigration, etc., just search for Enclosure Acts. I guarantee, after reading about the enclosures, those tall hedges that line English country roads will never look the same to you.