Tuesday, January 29, 2008


When the temps go to twenty below and stay there a couple of days, EVERYTHING freezes in place. The most crucial frozen spot in my house at the moment is under my kitchen sink. There’s a 45 degree bend sideways and then vertically in the cold water pipe and it’s close to a place where there was once a window in the foundation. The doors under the sink were supposed to stay open but I didn’t prop them and they closed themselves in the night. So there’s a lamp shining on the pipes right under the sink and another lightbulb shining right on the double bends, but so far, it’s not doing the job.

At least the hot water is still running so I can have coffee. Actually, this time of year I have a carboy of water in the kitchen. In summer it lives in the garage. It’s as much for water quality as in case of unavailability. Sometimes the wells get so low that the water is very alkaline and other times the system is being chlorinated. Water and weather, the double double-you obsessions here.

Yesterday I didn’t go out at all and I wore BOTH my night and day clothes all day: big wooly nightgown, big fleece shirt, longjohns, sweatpants -- I haven’t started wearing my fleece toque indoors yet, but the day may come. I wear it in the crawl space under the house to keep cobwebs (and possibly spiders) out of my hair. The forecast is for only one more day of this profound cold, but I buckled and put up insulated window covers, taped all the window cracks, put rugs and even pillows across all doors at the bottom, hung plastic and stood screens to confine heat flow. Down in the crawl space I stuffed crumpled newspapers into every gap where it seemed that I could feel cold air moving. I’ve been back to work on this project several times. The light bulb has burned out once. My big flashlight is dimming and I don't have a backup battery.

Only a day ago it was above freezing and an overoptimistic featherhead of a house finch was warbling out his mating song. He may be claws-up and stiff in the snow now, but yesterday I saw a bird go winging past the window through my big cottonwood tree. I don’t put out bird food, because of the cats, but many of the people in this older-folks village do maintain feeding stations. For some it’s more interesting than television. (Not that it’s hard to be more interesting than television!) The abruptness of these temperature drops is part of what makes cold dangerous, but our houses are also old and have crevices that can shelter a bird.

So far there has been one human death from the cold. It was near Bozeman, a college town, where a car slid off a road and got stuck in the snow late at night. Two young men were in the car. One walked out. He forgot about his buddy and didn’t send help back. The buddy also tried to walk out and traveled three miles before he died, probably of hypothermia. People around here are so confident in their cars and their driving that they don’t take real cold weather gear with them when they drive. College kids may be from somewhere else where weather isn’t so dangerous. But there is no safety margin so helpful as sobriety.

The newspaper reports that a cold wave like this one is also plaguing China, immobilizing their railroads. Plate techtonic experts say that once Montana was continuous with Asia -- many lifeforms both botanical and warm-blooded share their genetics. Peonies. Indians. Dinosaurs. But I don’t understand the dynamics of cold air adventuring south. Why doesn't cold air stay at the poles? I do know from experience that if we have unusually warm weather, it’s usually followed by unusually cold weather. And I know from reading that “global warming” is not really a matter of even thermostatic increment, but a phenomenon of energy dispersal through oceans and atmosphere, leading to turbulence. We are the bottom-feeders of the great sea of air, extrusions of the soil that have become mobile and walked a little too far north.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the major prairie blizzard of 1886-87 that Charlie Russell illustrated on a postcard with a rack of a cow. That weather event finally convinced ranchers that raising cows, which evolved in warm wet environs (like humans), could not be achieved in the place that shaped the bison. At least not without a lot of compensatory haying, sheltering, and watering (like humans). Nowadays a lot of ranchers just truck the cows south. Of course, grain farmers can fly south, leaving their troubles behind. In fact, this really cold weather is good for the granaries because it kills insects and generally goes with very dry weather which discourages fungus.

When it’s this cold, I abandon my NPR classical music station and tune in to the local farmer radio so I can pick up on their obsession with weather. Roads closed, drifting and icy, low visibility, schools closed, events canceled. I don’t have to go anyplace until halfway through February. Might be seventy degrees and dry by then! The whole secret is timing.

KSEN says there is a big wet storm coming in from the West but it probably will drop most of the moisture in snow before it gets over the Rockies. The east slope is in the cross-hairs of two main dynamics: cold air rocketing down through Canada, “the Alberta Clipper,” and wet air on the jet stream coming from the Pacific Ocean. There is nothing to slow down the north/south flow, but Pacific air must make it over the Coast Range, the Cascades, and the Rockies. If it clears those hurdles with a lot of moisture left in it and meets the cold air over our heads -- which it is bound to do sooner or later -- the result is... spring grass, eventually. But before that comes those epochal blizzards that broke the early open range ranchers.

I have a big down coat, a “rancher’s coat,” that I can finally fit back into and that makes temperature almost irrelevant except to the parts of me that stick out the bottom and top. I shall put my toque back on, wind my neck with a big soft muffler, double my socks, and venture down to the post office. Later. Maybe quite a bit later.


Anonymous said...

I don't think I've ever experienced anything colder than about five below. And that was brutal. Twenty below? I can scarcely imagine.

Chas S. Clifton said...

"There is nothing to slow down the north/south flow..."

As the old Texas Panhandle saying goes, "Nothing between us and the Arctic Circle but a barbed-wire fence."

Some people add, "And two strands are busted."