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Appreciating the wild winter

01/30/03 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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Suddenly, it's mid-January in central Vermont. The cold has descended upon us with Biblical force, and life feels somehow sort of...medieval. A series of sub-zero nights and bitter windy days have made life harder for all of us. Some water pipes have frozen, some furnaces have failed and, tragically, a few homes have burned down. The nights are tree-popping cold, and even the thin January sunlight doesn't warm things up much.

But whatever else winter may be, it's a visual feast. While waiting for a break in the cold, I like to watch my fellow Vermonters as they make their way around the frozen streets, wrapped in multiple layers of down, fleece, and wool. Of course there is the usual contingent of teenagers displaying complete contempt for the weather: no coats, no scarves, and if they deign to wear a hat, it's a cotton baseball cap -- a joke in really cold weather! Some women look like they're navigating the winter streets in a wool and down burka - all you can see are their eyes. But a surprising number of them don't wear hats, no matter how cold it gets. This amazes me.

But I admit I'm obsessive about hats. Having no hair on top of your skull will do that to you. At the bottom of the sub-zero temperature curve, I briefly resurrected the black fur hat my son brought me back from Russia several years ago. Fur hats may be politically incorrect, but they are without doubt the warmest hats on the planet. Who cares if they make us look slightly ridiculous?

My favorite use of the big fur hat is splitting wood at 10 or 20 below. With the huge earflaps down, splitting axe in hand, and black bunny fur blowing majestically in the wind, Elizabeth tells me I look slightly like the wrath of Genghis Khan, blown in off the steppes of Asia. If I make a dramatic enough entry with an armload of fresh wood and the wind howling behind me, she may be willing to kindle the evening fire and mix me a drink! Who says there are no benefits to winter?

A long stretch of sub-zero cold is wearing on everything - cars, furnaces, woodpiles, dogs, and people. Yet it does make us appreciate the essentials, glad that we're all home and warm, with a fire in the woodstove and dinner on the table. These long cold stretches make my little village look like a Pieter Brueghel painting - the winter landscapes where well-bundled skaters glide down the winding, frozen river, past the rows of little houses and the bare trees festooned with crows, toward the white hills far beyond. In the foreground a band of hunters and dogs returns, bearing meat for a winter meal.

Like the hunters in the painting, we know we're a part of nature now, dependent on her whims for our survival. It feels rough, primitive, essential. And yet, somehow, it feels right.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.
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