Friday, January 21, 2011

When Winter was Really Winter

Thirteen below when I got up this morning; our annual “cold snap” has arrived. 1983 was my first year in Wisconsin. In December we hit minus 28 and it stayed below zero for five straight days. I thought that every winter was going to be like that, and briefly questioned the wisdom of moving here. Fortunately, I have since learned that such bitter spells are not common, even here in the Wisconsin tundra. The days are getting noticeably longer, the seed catalogues have arrived, and the Brewers pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 16. For baseball fans, that day marks the official end of winter, so I know I am going to get through.

In younger days, when we lived in New Jersey, we used to take winter vacations at a friend’s cabin in the mountains of northern New Hampshire. With no weather forecasts available to us, we drove marginal cars through fierce snowstorms in mountain passes, too young and stupid to be frightened. Mountaineering skis were essential transportation for folks who lived up in the mountains, because cars could be useless for days on end. One night the temperature got close to minus forty, and this ignorant flatlander had left the parking brake set on his Fiat. It was several days before I could get it unfrozen.

Local folks called cold spells like that “Sally sit by the fire” days, and the world pretty much shut down. Winter decoration consisted of hanging old blankets in the doorways of the warmest room, usually the kitchen, and moving the bedding in there. One neighbor simply gave up on indoor plumbing for the worst part of winter—he kept the seat for the outhouse hanging above the wood stove in the kitchen and tried to make it to the outhouse while it still had a bit of warmth to it. I’m told that the rangers who overwinter on Isle Royale still do the same thing.

Our expectations have changed a great deal over the decades, largely thanks to improved technology. We expect the plows to keep roads open no matter how heavy the snow and the furnace to keep our house warm no matter how low the thermometer plummets. We do not like to be inconvenienced, by the weather or anything else.

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher whose work I admire, laments our increasing dependence upon technological devices, arguing that we have lost important “focal practices” that once formed and shaped us. Take the wood stove that heats our cabin in the U.P. It forces me to secure firewood every year, then to split, stack and dry it. I have learned a bit about different woods and how they burn, and how to tend the stove to maintain a reasonably comfortable temperature. It shapes the rhythm of the day. Every half hour or so I am poking it or adding wood, and if I leave the cabin for too long I need to start a new fire.

Here at home, if I am chilly I tap the touch screen of a thermostat of such sophistication that I only vaguely understand how it works, and it calls for heat from a furnace that I don’t have a clue how to fix if it conks out on me. It is all very convenient, to be sure. But sometimes I ponder all the skills we have lost to our increasing dependence upon technology, and wonder if our lives are poorer for it. Winter used to force us to slow down, make adjustments, change our plans. Now we maintain our busy schedules no matter what, griping and grumbling over the smallest delay or inconvenience. Winter was in some ways more enjoyable when we had to take it seriously.


rick in cos said...

From our viewpoint on the edge of the Rockies, living on the side of Cheyenne Mountain, where our coldest temp so far this winter is about minus 5, and the average day is sunny and 40....I have to go along with my spouse and say, I can't imagine moving back to the upper Midwest and living another winter there. Our snow usually melts off quick, if we desire heavy snow, I'm skiing at high altitude with a 2 hour drive.
As for the dependence on technology...guilty as charged. Our electricity went out last week, early evening, temp was only about 15 degrees...we hung out at our daughter's place until we were so tired I said,"c'mon, we'll keep each other warm" and headed home. The power came on as we pulled into the driveway. we could thus open the garage door and turn on lights. The house had only dropped to about 66 degrees, quickly warmed up, and the electric pad under our sheets made the bed toasty. We sought info on why the power delay with our remote, in bed, watching the hundreds of tv channels...and scanned a variety of news sources on my blackberry on the nightstand. Yep, way too reliant on tech. AND, I miss our old Up Nort Wisconsin cabin, where tech was second fiddle to the old ways...

Anonymous said...

I remember as a young boy driving a tractor to our upper farm in January, cold wind, no heater, no shield of any kind. And those tractors didn't travel fast so a 1 mile drive took a while.

It was character building, and I don't want to have to build such character again.