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By Pam Burke 

View from the North 40: Remembering how cold the cold is


Last updated 1/17/2020 at 10:17am

I once read advice from a well-respected author who said writers of fiction should pull details from their memories, not from current experiences. Specifically, she gave the example that winter scenes should be written during the summer months. Her thought process was something about how over time our brains will remember only the most vivid and impactful details, and then writers can tap into those memories to create richer stories.

My trouble with the advice, and perhaps why I am a columnist rather than a novelist, is that my brain doesn’t work that way. My brain loses recall of details. Time distills my experiences to overarching impressions and sentiments. I forget the minutia, the tiny things, the fleeting things.

After our lovely fall weather took a harsh winter hit to the nether regions back in September, I was feeding horses one sub-zero morning and thought, “Gah, I forget how cold the cold is.”

That thought has stuck with me this winter.

I forget the sharp burn of frigid air in the lungs and how sub-zero temps burn the nerves that feel, but numb the ones that make muscles work properly. I forget how my feet weirdly sweat when I’m chilled and this makes my feet even colder.

Though the following is not a complete list, they are things the cold temps have reminded me about winter this week:

The snow has a different language in different conditions. Heavy, wet snow blankets the world, muting sound. My house quiets down except for the occasional thump and thunk of snow clumps falling from the tree to the roof. When you walk through it, it makes a deep-throated popping noise as each footfall compresses the snow.

Sleet makes a delicate clicking noise and feels like you’re getting sandblasted if the wind is blowing it at you. Dry snow in the colder temps, though, you can hear slither and shift along the ground with the wind. And the colder and drier it is, the higher-pitched the squeak from your foot steps.

Heavy snow feels like an all-out assault against you when you’re driving through it, like that feeling when you’re trying to fight your way up out of a dream. Light snow makes snakes.

Old, dirty snow is just ugly. Sorry for the criticism — surely its mother loves you, old snow, but in reality? U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you ugly, yeah, yeah, you ugly.

Fireplace smoke reminds me that I lived in the mountains once.

Breath condensation freezes my hair in wild disarray.

Horses walk as if on high heels with wads of snow packed in their hooves.

Tracks left in snow reveal how much wildlife wanders across the property. Also, just a little blood on snow spreads and looks like a massacre.

It is not an easy thing to pack a 45 pound dog, who has too-cold feet, through snow while wearing several layers of winter wear and heavy boots — and 3 inches of cold, dry snow can be worse than 10 inches of the heavy snow.

Every chore takes at least twice as long to complete. That’s irony.

All the animal poop accumulates in the cold, even from the wild animals that wander through. Driving over a single mound of frozen horse manure, though, will pop a tire on our forklift. This is dire, so I have to scout the route carefully before venturing out for hay.

Don’t get me started on the darkness. My summer solstice celebration should be to buy stock in flashlight and battery companies.

Ah, dry, chapped skin, my flakey friend.

Things like to break in the cold. I spend a lot of my mental energy worrying about things breaking in winter. I listen nervously to the sounds of my furnace, engines, water pipes, sewer lines, well pump, electric fence charger, engine block heater, hinges, gates, tires, belts, gears, they all speak of the strain of cold.

Train wheels and steel tracks sing together in the deepest cold.

Atmospheric moisture crystallizes and falls through the air like delicate shards of diamonds, and hoar frost makes everything look like Christmas.

Soft pink and powder blue are the official colors of frigid winter sunrises. It’s the only time I ever call those two colors stunning. And while we’re on the topic of winter atmospheric phenomena: Sundogs and light pillars will keep me out in the cold admiring their beauty for longer than you would think. No other season can create these mysteries.

Winter has absolute purity of air, scouring clean the lungs and sinuses with every breath and making an absolute nothingness of scent smell like something. If I could, I would bottle it.

Of course, I would most likely use it up in the spring when all that poop starts to thaw. There’s a seasonal experience to look forward to.


Some details do linger in the brain at [email protected] .


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