On the Farm: Dark and stormy nights

The off-season gets even more quiet in a storm.

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—Karen Blackerby Logan

All summer long, we Islanders romanticize the off-season, when we can finally hear ourselves think and tackle those projects we didn’t have time for during the summertime hustle. Tourists scatter, and the locals are free to enjoy walks on empty beaches, or stop on a back road to chat with a friend without getting honked at. It’s lovely. At first. But toward mid-January, when the cheerful holiday lights come down and the novelty of New Year’s resolutions fade, things can get a little too quiet. 

Luckily for us, that is precisely when Mother Nature starts sending blizzards our way. 

Unlike schoolchildren, the farmers we know do not get excited about bad weather. Storms are stressful, hard on the animals and equipment, and so much work. But my husband and I are the gleeful exception. A blizzard warning is the unexpected gift that shakes up our winter routine. Like a holiday, there are different rules for drinking and eating and daily activities. It’s not like we were planning on doing anything anyway, but when the Island shuts down for a day or two, all the cozy hibernating we’ve been doing for months suddenly seems exciting.

We stop for a few necessities at the grocery store and make sure we have enough gas for tractors and chainsaws, but Islanders in general, and particularly Island farmers, don’t panic in the face of any storm. Our pantries are always stocked with nonperishables and freezers with farm-fresh meat. We have backup generators, and a wood stove and good old-fashioned Yankee determination and resilience, on our side. 

We do, however, enjoy the change of pace. We’re cheerful little worker ants, spreading extra shavings before closing our critters safely in their shelters. Then we head up to the house to start a pot of stew and mix our favorite blizzard-inspired cocktail. We light candles, even though we still have electricity. We revel in the anticipation, knowing we’ve prepared as much as we could, and hoping it’s enough.  

On one such dark and stormy night, my husband Brian and I were woken by a crash just after midnight. We were still on the couch, having fallen asleep watching a movie just before the power went out. Scrambling for flashlights in the darkness, and grabbing mismatched winter accessories on the way, we ventured out into the storm. 

A branch had fallen off a nearby locust tree, not exactly on the rabbit hutch, but grazed it enough to rip the plastic sheeting that was blocking the icy northeast wind. The idea of attempting the repair in said wind did not appeal to us, so we quickly made the decision to tuck the bunnies under our parkas, and make them a temporary home in a newspaper-lined dog crate by the fire. 

We doze some more until daybreak, but it’s still so dark and windy out that we take the morning slowly. Experience has told us that the animals are all still hunkered down in their cozy shelters — instinct urging them to stay put and rest until the storm subsides. We light the pilots on the stove with a candle, so we can make pancakes and bacon and stovetop espresso in the absence of electricity. We linger over a game of Scrabble until the cozy glow of storm togetherness gradually starts to fade. The kids are bickering over the last piece of bacon, and the song Brian has been humming all morning is now stuck in my head too, and there’s no radio to put on and drown it all out.

Recognizing the beginnings of cabin fever, and to save everyone’s sanity, we bundle up and head outside. My husband and I ride together on the ATV, and I wrap my arms tight around his waist in apology for the morning’s grumpiness. The kids jump through snowdrifts behind us. The chicken coop is standing proudly, though the weight of the snow is causing the roof of their run to sag in a way that suggests yet another winter project to add to the list. The latch on the door is frozen, and it takes my husband a few minutes of brute force to open it, while the kids and I shovel the snow away from the door. The hens immediately rush to the entrance, curious about the fresh, frosty air, but then stop short at the threshold, suddenly skeptical of the peculiar landscape. One brave bird touches the snow gingerly with her foot and pulls it back, letting out a cluck of alarm that is echoed by her coopmates. We shake our heads at what chickens our chickens are being, toss some food on the ground for them, and move on to check the rest of the farm. 

The sheep are also huddled cautiously in the door of their barn, but are quicker to run out when we dole out hay and grain. Our muscovy drake, RunAmok Duck, hasn’t fared as well. He tried hunkering down in the grain shelter, apparently not quite as out of the wind as he thought he was, and a huge hunk of ice has formed on his chest feathers. He hitches a ride with us back to the house, and we dispatch our sons to find a cardboard box, some towels, and a hairdryer. 

The power is on when we return to the house, so the kids and I set about thawing the duck and filling the rabbits’ water bottles. Brian is out plowing, and I catch a glimpse of him through the kitchen window, expertly maneuvering the Kubota tractor around the hills and stone walls buried in the snow. So self-assured, so capable, such a handsome smile under that goofy winter hat. How is this the same man I accused of cheating at Scrabble just hours ago? It strikes me that marriage is a lot like an Island winter — long stretches of tedium punctuated by unexpected squalls of catastrophe. Fortunately, the same qualities can get you through both the boredom and the stress: flexibility, patience, humor … and most important of all, irresistibly alluring tractor moves. 

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