Summer was always my favorite season of the year as I was growing up in New England.
Little wonder, as summer brought balmy weather, the beauty of the green-garbed countryside, and, of course, a two-month release from the regimen of school.
Winter I only tolerated. Although it offered small-scale school vacations, it was the season of the Big Snows. And my recollection of winter in the Greater Boston suburb of Newton was of snowstorms of blizzard proportions. Amid the snows, I would be embarked upon a seemingly endless and all but hopeless battle to clear our lengthy driveway for the family car.
What warmed me toward winter was a stay I had in rural Vermont as a 14-year-old. That experience forever replaced mere tolerance with a considerable degree of delight in winter. In fact, to this day I ve never considered fleeing to a warmer climate but prefer to weather the cold months.
That winter of my 14th year was unique. It was the only time I got to spend the February school vacation on my Aunt Mary s parents farm in Quechee, Vermont. Back then, Quechee was a quiet farming village, long before being transformed into Quechee Lakes, a community-wide development makeover.
Winter sports were not the means of changing my feelings for the season. Despite the new name for Quechee, there were no nearby ponds there in my day to support ice skating. During that vacation week I did have an opportunity to borrow a family member s primitive skis, but that was a disaster. Left on my own to try to get the hang of using those long, skinny, straight pieces of wood loosely tied to my winter boots, all I did was pull out the nails attaching the simple bindings to each ski. I quickly stopped that activity, thinking I d be scolded for messing up the equipment.
The excitement for me came, rather, as I got involved in a farming activity. Norris Wood, my Aunt Mary s dad, was a farmer closing in on old age. What probably kept him going was his insistence on continuing certain time-honored routines of rural life. His was a farm in retirement, like him a cow or two, a few chickens, his pair of work horses, and a large vegetable patch to tend.
With his team of horses, Jerry and Chub, he harvested hay in summer. Norris was expert at using the scythe to get into spots where the horse-drawn mowing machine couldn t fit.
In the winter he d drive the horses into distant woodlots on his 350-acre property to pick up wood he d cut into four-foot lengths that fall. It would be stored in carefully arranged stacks in the shed next to the kitchen door, to season there before being cut and split for use the next winter in the cookstove.
I came along just in time that winter to help Norris bring in the firewood. He d hitch the team to what he called a dray. Essentially, this was a skid. It had a wagon-like bottom frame with two steel-bottomed runners fitted on the front, rather than wheels, while the two protruding back ends of the frame s side pieces simply dragged on the ground. Instead of solid wood sides, this conveyance had stakes placed in pairs at regular intervals along both sides of the frame. The lengths of firewood would be stacked crosswise on the frame, held in place by the upright stakes.
This was the perfect vehicle for moving along snow-covered pathways, and when snow covered the ground growth, the dray could be maneuvered in the forest where a wheeled wagon could not easily fit, no matter what the weather.
For the trips to and from the woodlots, Norris would sit atop a crosspiece at the front of the dray to drive the horses. He took special pride in handling the horses, not trusting me to take over the harnesses very much at all.
My station was at the back of the dray. I rode on either side of the frame, back beyond the last set of stakes holding the load in place, above where the two large side pieces of frame touched the ground.
I would hang onto the back stakes and the firewood at the very back of the load. From there I could watch Norris drive the horses, soon learning to appreciate the skill required on the uneven ground (let alone in tending to and harnessing the team).
I would jump from one side of the frame to the other, moving whenever it appeared to be rising from the ground as we moved across the uneven paths and snow pack. I thought, at least, that what I was doing was helping with my weight to keep the dray from tipping over. I began to take pride in never missing my footing and never falling off the moving vehicle.
The trips on the dray were exhilarating, and the efforts to load and unload the conveyance and to see it move safely along each route gave me a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
The weather was bracing, never too cold or stormy during my tour of duty. If I got heated up with the work of moving the firewood around, I always cooled down just enough on the ride. Because I was working in the cold I didn t wear all the encumbering clothing that inactive people need to keep warm.
I discovered there was time on each ride to view something of the countryside. I could take in the beauty of the snow mantle blanketing the landscape. I could study the patterns of lights and shadows created by the winter sun on the snow cover and see the different intensities and tones of sunlight on snow and landscape features at various times of the day. Happily, I had a camera with me to record some of what I saw.
Stops for food and drink suitable to sustain work outdoors in winter enhanced my delight in the season. On breaks we enjoyed coffee and homemade doughnuts. I d just learned to drink black coffee. In fact, during that week somehow, the tastes, sights and smells of farmstead food and drink got wrapped into my appreciation of that winter experience.
Norris was a hard taskmaster. As I would learn when I helped him with haying in a summer to come, he kept to his concept of a right way of doing things ways involving considerable skill and physical strength. Although we didn t carry on any particularly memorable discussions when together, a camaraderie developed that tempered my awe of his abilities and his advanced years as compared to mine.
So I welcome yet another winter season to New England. May we all find in this season of the new year 2006 even more exhilaration and delight.