Winter has come to Georgia.
Up until the first week of January, we continued to get weather in the 60’s – except for the occasional cold snap that caught me (and my innocent, fragile peacocks) unaware. It was so warm at the beginning of this month that plants got confused – some dizzy daffodils and disoriented trees started to bloom – bad news for spring. Last year was a bad one (agriculturally) for Georgia. We lost all the apples, peaches and blueberries due to early frosts. Gardens barely limped along all summer due to drought. The farmers deserve a good season this year, but with the erratic weather, I’m not convinced they’ll get it. Global warming? The natural, historical shift of environment? Fluke? Whatever, it sure seems spooky.
Finally, the cold has made a grand entrance, fashionably late. I don’t particularly like cold weather, (although I think snow is lovely) but lower temperatures do offer a few advantages. First and foremost is the fact that the mud around my barn area turns to hard, icy ground, making it easy to walk around to take care of the animals without my shoes and the hem of my jeans soaking up mud until I look like the victim of some thug who poured cement in a block around my feet. It won’t be so bad when grass grows, but we built the structure in the middle of a drought, and what grass seed we tried to plant the breeze and chickens eradicated. So, I’m left with mud, mud and more mud. To combat it, when cleaning the barn I often toss the shavings (horse droppings and all) around the perimeter like mulch. Neva says this is not cool, but I feel anything is better than slippery mud, and like it or not, it does make a good layer of fertilizer for spring.
While we were in Portland, Denver took care of my animals. She called me and said, “I can’t believe you do this everyday. How can you manage it all, handle all these creatures and take care of these kids and this house and still find time to write and everything else?”
“Magic, dear. Takes almost 50 years to perfect the skill, but in time, you’ll be able to fit 25 hours of work into a day too.”
“No matter what I do, even wearing your boots, I can’t help ending up all muddy. And the cold is miserable.”
Unfortunately, my magic isn’t strong enough to keep my shoes and the floor of my car clean. Sorry. And I hate the cold too. Every winter I think I should just grow up and sell all these critters, but just when I think I can’t stand it anymore, spring comes, and I’m thrilled to have the excuse to be outside.”
My angora bunnies love this weather. They are frisky and gloriously happy, blown up like a huge powder puffs because their hair is currently lush and long. (I need to harvest their fur, but I always worry that they’ll feel cold if I remove layers, so I put off de-hairing them as long as I can this time of year.) I’ve put the angoras in my huge bird pens for the winter, girls on one side, boys on the others, so they have room to run and stretch. Come spring, (assuming we’re still here) I’ll let them mate, then they’ll have to move back to their smaller hutches to make room for another try at raising peacocks. I’ll feel guilty about that, but I’m a girl on a bird mission now, and I don’t suppose a new litter would be as safe in the big open pen anyway. Because of the cold, I had to figure out a system for keeping the bunnies watered. I begin every morning changing out their water bottles with doubles I keep in the house, because their drinking water freezes into hard bricks over night. Sometimes, the bottles crack as the water expands. Drives me mad. But water is vital to angoras because without it, they have digestive problems due to all the hair they ingest cleaning themselves. So, I keep the fresh bottles coming, no matter that it’s a drag. No one said winter rabbiting was gonna be fun.
At least I no longer have to crack the surface of a water bucket for the chickens anymore, because we extended their cage to the creek and that continues to flow despite the weather. I don’t even bother to bring water to the horses, because their buckets freeze too. But this means I can’t keep them in the barn for very long. They are happiest roaming the pasture anyway. Horses have a unique physical system which keeps them warm as long as they are dry. If they are wet and cold winds blow, it lifts the thermal layer of their winter coats and they get chilled. If it looks to be a really cold, wet night, I’ll lug 10 gallons of water in jugs out to the barn and get them settled in for a toasty night. Next spring I’m promised to get a pump from the creak and a hose to give me barn water access (again, providing we’re here). Promises. Promises. We’ll see.
My pinto Saddlebred, Joy, is very antsy this time of year. She runs along the fence when she sees me, whinnies and makes a general spectacle of herself demanding attention. She is high strung, so come spring, she’ll need a ton of work to be safe to ride again. I appreciate the cold as an excuse not to work with her. I’m lazy that way.
Peppy, my quarter horse, is calm no matter the season. He looks at me with dreamy eyes and leads anywhere I wish with ease. We have this comfortable camaraderie. I’m convinced he has deep, inner wisdom so I appointed him my new best friend and he hears all my secrets as he munches on hay. I can go months without riding him, and when I saddle up, it’s as if we haven’t missed a day. If I ever have to unload all my animals, Peppy is the one I’ll fight to keep. Donkey is special too, of course, but the fact is, he’s just an indulgence. He has no practical purpose except to be cute. Yesterday I was standing by the fence and he came a put his head under my armpit and nuzzled me for about ten minutes, rubbing against my side, looking at me with moony, love-struck eyes. In winter, his coat gets furry like a bear. Running my hands along his neck is the best way to warm frozen fingers. Hey, there ya go, he does have a practical purpose.
During winter, I can’t check my bees, which drives me nuts. Bees huddle in their hive all winter to keep warm. If you open the hive, you risk killing them, so you pretty much have to wait for spring to see if mites or dysentery or something else has wiped them out. A few dead bees at the entrance of the hive are a good sign because it means they’re active inside, keeping the hive clean. Nevertheless, each time I see a dead bee, I have to sit on my hands to keep myself from tearing open the top to take a peek. All kinds of things can be happening in there.
Field mice get into hives to build a warm winter nest and spend the winter dining on honeycomb until there is nothing left. If this happens, the bees end up starving. We have tons of field mice in the area, and with the drought I have no clue if my bees harvested as much nectar to feed themselves a full winter anyway, so it’s anyone’s guess what’s inside my hive. I’m such a newbie at beekeeping, I can barely judge things even when I CAN see inside. And scientist can’t explain it, but there is a huge bee death syndrome thing happening which is a serious threat to our environment that can wipe out hives even if you haven’t done anything wrong. (I have my own theories, based on our tampering with nature by medicating bees until they build up immunity and become more susceptible to disease – but that is too complicated to get into now.) Anyway, I keep my fingers crossed and every few weeks I go stare at that white box with the big rock on top (to keep the wind from blowing off the cover ). . . listening for buzzing inside. . . .wondering. . . hoping. This month, I’ll be ordering a swarm of bees for my second hive. Beekeepers place orders in January for delivery in spring. I keep thinking I may need two, but I feel if I order an extra swarm just because I don’t have faith in my current bees, I’ll jinx them or something. I’ve decided to hold out hope and see what happens. Faith counts when working in tune with nature.
My ducks don’t seem to mind the winter. The pond keeps freezing (not enough for me to skate on, unfortunately, but enough to support dogs and birds who are curious about why their swimming hole is suddenly hard.) They walk around the surface, slipping and squawking in the most awkward way, as if they’re in a Saturday night live skit. I worry about their safety without the pond to swim in, because they’re literally “sitting ducks” out there on the banks. Especially considering the wildlife is hungriest in winter. The first thing I do every morning is look out the window and count beaks. If one of my birds is under the dock or hiding in the woods I get worried and can’t start coffee until I play where’s Waldo, the duck version. Not like I can do anything if one of them becomes a coyote’s frozen dinner, but still, I can’t start the day without first releasing that huge sigh of relief.
My llamas are wooly, designed for the cold, so they seem fairly happy with the weather. My newer, girl llama has gotten very comfortable with me, and yesterday she ate out of my hand for the first time. She is temperamental and standoffish, so this felt like some magnificent conquest. She doesn’t look very pregnant to me, but Mark insists she’s getting fatter. . . and meaner. I have to admit, she eats like she’s pregnant, always trying to push donkey away from his food to get seconds. Poor donkey, everyone picks on him. I suppose her pregnancy will show more as we get closer to June. Will be interesting.
My chickens don’t much like the weather. Since there are no yummy bugs out and about, they no longer peruse the pasture – they tend to stay in the barn or perched on my hay bales. You may recall me complaining that my chickens wouldn’t lay eggs for months and months when we began. Well, now, don’t ya know, I’m complaining that they won’t STOP laying. Chickens usually don’t lay when the days grow short, but my girls are hearty machines, dropping eggs daily even when they’re supposed to be on vacation. In this weather, the eggs freeze and crack so I have to toss them out into the woods where they eventually get eaten by wild creatures. Occasionally, I get lucky and pick up an egg or two freshly laid and still warm. But to be honest, a single egg is a dangerous thing for an absentminded girl like me. I inevitably put them in the pocket of my leather coat, and since it is an odd egg, I forget it’s there. I come back home and toss the coat onto a table, wincing as the jacket sails through the air, knowing what I’ve done even before my loaded jacket hits the surface. I’ve cleaned egg out of my pockets more than once this month. I’m a slow learner.
So, this former spoiled Florida girl admits winter can be a drag, and not just because the car windows need defrosting before you head out for the day.
But on those days when the Georgia snow filters down, soft and light, never enough to interfere with functioning – just enough to decorate the world like icing on cake, winter doesn’t seem so bad.
My parents say, “Don’t you miss the sunshine and beautiful weather of Florida?”
Really, I don’t. Because I believe contrast and change is good – it serves to help us appreciate what is wonderful and good. A monotone existence, even when the level is lovely and the message grand, tends to numb the listener ears. I did appreciate the mild weather of Florida for things like running, but overall, I like how the landscape here changes from season to season. I like how my wardrobe changes as hats, scarves and piling on layers give me a wealth of new fashion opportunities. I even like how the food changes as I strive to eat seasonally. I like pausing to witness the trees sleep, their branches knarly and empty like the bones of an old man, until the leaves bud like goose pimples on someone’s arm. I am fascinated by the animals shifting attitudes, my kids playing in the snow, and mesmerized by fires as they leap and change color, warming the room and my insides equally well. True, I don’t like the mud, but hey, you must take the good with the bad.
Winter has come to Georgia, something to celebrate. And in only two months, it will be gone, which is something I’ll appreciate as well. I’ll hose down my shoes and make a party of it by tossing grass seed into the air.