Thirty-five years ago, Mr. Right and I sold our house in one of Pittsburgh’s lowest-rent districts, moved ourselves into a tent in a field in Washington County, PA, where our prospective new home was nothing more than a hole in the ground, and started to build.
I’m sure the neighbors thought we were nuts. Nevertheless, this area breeds stoicism and a fine sense of history, so they probably realized that–wherever we fell on the continuum of deranged behavior–we were fairly harmless; many of them befriended us, and more that a few of them took it upon themselves to shepherd us on our journey into country life, making sure that we learned from our mistakes, and gently steering us away from making any so damaging that real catastrophe might ensue.
And thus did we learn about septic fields, well-drilling, drainage, crop planting and harvesting, feed management, livestock-rearing, hay baling, and enough medical and veterinary lore to successfully navigate most farm emergencies: Mr. Right amputates half his index finger in a tractor/fence maintenance accident? Apply pressure, wrap firmly, elevate. Get him in the car while he’s still upright in case he passes out, so you don’t have to pick him up and drag him up the hill. Get a plastic bag with ice, wrap what remains of severed digit in paper towel and put in bag. Move tractor (which is still running and facing downhill) into safe place and turn it off. Only then, proceed to the hospital. Lambing emergency in the barn? Get a bucket of soapy water, a hay bale, a bottle of Crisco oil and (worst case) a bag of sugar, and get on with it. You’ll have a successful outcome more often than not, even though the bruises on your hands may take weeks to heal. (AFAIK, there’s no treatment or manicure on earth that will hasten the process or cover up the damage. Deal with it.)
The debt Mr. Right and I owe our neighbors and friends is immense, and I’ve done what I can over the years to pay it back–although I don’t think any of them is keeping an accounting–with my “citified” skills, usually involving computers; still, my proudest moments are when one of my farmer friends calls me up and says something like, “I think there may be another piglet still inside my sow, but I can’t get my hand in there to find out. Could you come over and have a feel around?” And that’s when I know we made exactly the right decision all those years ago, and that I belong here.
Mr. Right used to say that he’d acquired the equivalent of a second PhD, this one in country living, from our farmer friends and neighbors, as the two of us listened closely, learned from, and lived by, the lessons our new friends taught us.
More than a few of those lessons had to do with matters of meteorological prognostication. If you’re a farmer, even a small-time, hobby farmer like the two of us, you must to pay attention to, and work with, the weather. This can be difficult when your only source of forecasting is the unreliable and notoriously inaccurate National Weather Service. So you find alternatives.
And one of the invaluable pieces of advice that came to us early, from an old gentleman living up the road, was to wait until the “Three Snowmen” had paid their visit in the spring before getting really serious about doing any outside planting. Because April is an untrustworthy month, and while it offers enticements of warmer weather and better things to come, it also occasionally brings back unwelcome blasts of winter. He explained that tradition (informed by experience) says that after you think that spring has arrived and that it’s safe to begin work outside, there will be three further, sudden and short, intervals of cold, snow and ice, before you can actually trust that the plants will be safe. All the old-timers around here seem to know this bit of country wisdom; fewer of the younger folks do. However, I listened and took heed.
But not without wondering where it came from. So I did a bit of looking around and, as usual, the trusty Farmer’s Almanac (whose long-range forecast for this winter turned out to be spot on) is a good place to start:
Perhaps you’ve heard the old proverb that warns not to plant until after the “Three Ice Men” have passed, but do you know who these mysterious Ice Men are? The tradition comes from Northern Europe, and is tied to the successive feasts of St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatius …
Apparently, the tradition originated in Northern and Eastern Europe as, over time, the dates of last frost in each area came to be associated with certain saints’ days–in these cases, a group of them known collectively as the Ice Saints, whose feast days fall between May 11 and 13. Galileo is said to have engaged some of his students on an annual data-gathering study to confirm these findings, although the Royal Meteorological Society has said that the belief is just a myth. Spoilsports, and just what I’d expect.
As the legend has evolved in these parts, it seems to have lost its religious significance, and we generally expect the “snowmen” to visit one-at-a-time, rather than in a contiguous group. Although I thought this year might be different: A couple of weeks ago, we had a three-day stretch, two of which featured temperatures well below freezing, and the third of which was just above. I found myself really hoping that was it, and we were done with winter.
But, not so fast. I think what we saw earlier this month might just have been the pilot for a new CBS television series called Two-And-A-Half Snowmen.
Because the third little guy showed up this morning.
Fortunately, I was prepared. Any tender annuals I’ve already put out are in baskets or pots, and I’ve moved them into the sunroom. Indoor plants that I’d put out on the brick patio (it’s been in the 70s and even up into the 80s a few times since the second week of April) are back inside, and I’ve put cardboard boxes over anything in the ground I think will really suffer, including some of the less-hardy perennials. And for the next couple of weeks I’ll continue the juggling act that always goes on at this time of year. (The “official” date for “last frost” in my climate zone is May 31. I never hold back for that, because the heat of summer comes galloping along shortly after, and if I did, all the spring flowers I love so much would wilt and die before they really got going.)
So today, it’s indoor work. Projects include cutting a door in half to make a Dutch door for the utility room, and framing in a storage unit I installed the other day. Plenty to do.
Or perhaps I’ll fill up the bird feeders and just relax in my armchair with a nice cup of hot chocolate and a wooly blanket, and–to slightly–misquote the Christmas poem, “settle my brains for a [hopefully short] winter’s nap.”
Here’s what I’ll be looking at out the window if I do:
How’s the weather in your neck of the woods?