We have finally arrived at the “pit of winter.” That is, the six-week period centered around January 21 (one month beyond the annual winter solstice) when we typically expect the coldest weather of the year to occur. So far this winter, the coldest low temperature we have seen was +7 degrees (with a wind chill of -3 degrees) on the morning of January 21. It was a little warmer the next morning, when the thermometer bottomed out at +9 degrees, with a wind chill of +2. The long-term averages suggest that the coldest temperature of the year in our area should fall somewhere between -5 and +5 degrees. My records show the coldest days in each of the prior three years landed in that range. If this temperature holds throughout the rest of the year, we will have missed it this year by two degrees. However, we still have two more cold months to go—the months of February and December—before we can know for sure.
This winter has been especially disagreeable. The last two (2017-18 and 2018-19) were colder than average at our farm. The first half of this winter has brought us alternating bouts of warm and cold weather that challenge the ability of our bodies to tolerate. Just when we had become accustomed to high temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s with lows around freezing, we were hit with five days of the coldest weather we’ve experienced this season (high temperatures barely above freezing followed by lows in the single digits and teens). Snowfall has been light this year. To date, we have received only 4.5 total inches of snowfall accumulation. However, total rainfall in both December and January has been well above the long-term average. What precipitation we have received has fallen predominantly during the warm spells.
Other factors that have made this winter especially unpleasant have been the strong winds (which have been especially fierce during the transitions between warm and cold spells), and frequent low clouds and fog that make the calmest rainy days particularly gloomy. The bright colors of spring, summer, and fall have been replaced by typically bland white and grey cloudy skies and the browns of bare trees and bleached grass. It’s just not the best weather conditions in which to truly appreciate the natural beauty of our Potomac Highlands region. The knowledge that the coldest part of winter is only half over only adds to the winter doldrums that we feel.
The unpleasantly somber mood of the season has not escaped notice by our cat, Calli, and our goats Essie and Snowball. Calli, who usually spends every moment that she can hunting around our intermittent run, peeper pond, woods and fields, has been driven back into the house for uncharacteristically long periods of rest and recovery from the winds and cold. Her efforts to defy the rain and snow have left her silky coat of fur soaked to the bone. She often appears more like a drowned rat than the pretty house cat that she can be.
Our goats, Essie and Snowball, have decided that our small barn is the best refuge from the inclement weather. I have had to turn them out on sunny days and close the sliding entrance door just to keep them from hibernating the winter away in their barn. Gradually, they have been learning that it’s more comfortable to stand out in the sun on a cold day than to hide in the dark shadows of their barn—even if the wind is blowing. Their fur is designed well to insulate them from all but the strongest winds. I typically let them stay in the barn when it rains or the wind chills are too severe for them to tolerate. Even so, I go through a trying period of persuasion to get them outdoors after their morning sunrise feeding, so I can clean up the poops they generously scatter across the barn floor during the long winter night. I find that lugging fresh water to the barn and cleaning up all the goat poops can be especially unpleasant when the arthritis in my hands acts up during the rapid transitions between warm and cold spells. The only relief I can find is to get them to spend more time outdoors during the best winter days, which reduces the amount of poop cleaning that is required each morning and evening.
The only way to feel optimistic about facing the second half of winter is to remind yourself that the first half of winter is over. At least the days are getting longer, the temperatures are now beginning to recover, and we may have survived what is typically the coldest temperature of the year. Based on our heating fuel consumption rate to date, which I monitor closely, we can feel confident that we have adequate firewood and pellet supplies to keep our house warm until spring decides to return. All we have to do is batten down the hatches and persevere the remaining cold. Actually, when I think more carefully about it, I guess I’m not in a great rush to challenge my hibernating muscles to complete all the heavy spring chores we need to complete in April and May to revive our farm. Perhaps the greatest reward that winter brings is the extra time winter gives us to relax from the intensive manual labor of the other three seasons. I guess winter’s not so bad as you may think it is, after all.