Friday, December 16, 2016


In the Sixties when this extreme cold hit and stayed for a few weeks it seemed almost exciting and romantic.  I was with Bob, jumping into the pickup and discovering that the bench seat had turned to concrete in the night.  The truck had been plugged in or it wouldn’t start.  The windshield rarely had to be scraped because there wasn’t much snow in the most severe cold.  Very low humidity.  I was just past 21 and hardly felt the cold.

My brothers were Boy Scouts and the movie the leaders rented most often was about Scott freezing to death in his little tent, writing in his journal by the light of a stub candle.  That was before television.  (Their other favorite rental was Disney’s “Beaver Valley”, before the National Geographic channel and before anyone rebuked anyone for anthropomorphizing.)  When I dream about this, the sound is not wind or graphite on paper — it’s the chatter of a 16 mm projector.

But that’s old-fashioned cold.  Modern cold is something one watches on the computer and is measured in the cost of fuel as much as the degrees of temperature.  We still occasionally find people frozen to death in their own homes, victims of poverty or maybe deranged enough to not seek help and better shelter.  Too much pride can be a dementia, but it’s also one of the symptoms of hypothermia.  It’s not just acting crazy — it’s not thinking properly.  I always remember that in England during WWII old people wouldn’t keep their places warm enough because they were trying to save money.  The answer was to get them each a canary or parakeet, because the birds would die if they were too cold.  (Yes, like those coal mine birds.)  The old person’s impulse to protect would make them keep the heat on.  

But what can anyone say about coin-operated heaters — no shilling, no heat.  I remember coin-operated toilets but at least the doors were high enough that a child could slide under and open from the inside.  People would hold the door for each other.

The management of heat and water, clean or used, and their interaction are basic human preoccupations.  Last winter our sewage lagoon kept failing its e-coli digestion tests because the bugs that do the work were too cold to be operational.  We spent a LOT of money to cover the lagoons and put in air pumps so the cold water wouldn’t settle.  So far this winter, our tests have passed.

Of course, in a house the preoccupation is always with water pipes freezing.  In a mammal body one may not be quite conscious of the need to replenish water in the circulating tissues, esp. at the extremities.  I’m running two fans to push air around my four-room house because my floor furnace works by convection, heat rising naturally when it’s warmed by the burning gas.  The electricity can be off for hours here, but the gas has never failed to my knowledge.

I don’t know what the humidity is, but if it gets too low I put a wet towel on the grate over the furnace.  People keep clever little pots and kettles on their heat sources.  The cats drink a surprising amount of water.  The young ones improve their heat and circulation by galloping around and around the four connected rooms.  I block the cat flap on the inside with a knitting needle so they can go out, but not come in.  

Every now and then I count cats to see who’s in, who’s out.  Ferals in the garage go out; Bunny and her under-the-floor children come in.  Finnegan, who began as “Hop,” so small he went through grass like a grasshopper, then was the “Alien”, and finally “Finnegan” — a kind of cat version of an Irish pub tough — sneaks in when he can, otherwise pushes the Granny Mamacat out of her heated box, which is why there are two heated boxes.

I’m listening for the wind, which means warmth.  Last night the forecast low was minus four, but it actually never went below zero and when I got up, it was six above and still is, though the high was guessed as four above and falling tonight to ten below.  We’re close enough to the mountains to get catabatic winds before the rest of the forecast area, but it seems still.  A sift of snow.

I have a friend in Calgary and we correspond enough to share weather monitoring, which usually gets to her before it comes down here, sometimes in a matter of hours.  Currently the weather report for Calgary fits Valier better than the official Montana forecast.  My mother, who lived in Portland, used to say she followed reports on the Pacific jet stream because as it went East, it hit her first, then me, then my brothers.  But the mischief here arrives on the Alberta Clipper coming down from the north, because what the global warming deniers never grasp is that warm at the pole drives the cold south.

Seven Humboldt penguins died overnight in the Calgary Zoo, but it was not because of the cold — evidently they drowned in a panic, but no one knows what panicked them.  I would joke that it was American elections, but first of all they are no laughing matter and second, the total mindless panic of voters turns out to be global, no matter how many people deny globalization.

The cats’ fav way to warm up is to crawl into my arms, no matter if I’m trying to type.  To keep them off the keyboard, I rigged up a hanging light bulb in front of the window alongside me and they’ll line up side-by-side to watch the backyard.  If they stop dozing and go on alert, I check to see what kind of marauders are at hand — meter reader or dog?  Just now it was merely Finnegan again.  In again, out again.

We are supposed to have two more days of profound cold and then go up to merely freezing, which is actually more dangerous on the highway.  There is no more ghastly feeling than losing friction, flying with no control, possibly swapping ends, hoping to hit brush instead of a tree or a drop-off.  

At the other end of the spectrum is cuddling in bed with down and fleece — cat and electricity warmed — mentally working out stuff to put on a blog.  But later in the day . . . possibly MUCH later.


nelliemcclung said...

Is the child on the right you Mary? It's 7F here right now. We have propane for heat. And we have a basement which helps. As for the water pipes, I leave the cupboard doors open under the sink in the kitchen and bathroom to let warmer air in there. And if it's exceptionally cold I let the water drip a slight bit.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Yes, I'm the child on the right in my dark green wool snowsuit. The one on the left is my brother Mark, two years younger.

The temp at the moment is 17 below, headed down to 25 below. We've been this cold before. All those little tricks we learn!

This is supposed to be as cold as it goes before the wind comes up.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Just checking in to see if your fingers are still nimble enough to type in -25 degrees. Not much warmer on this side of the mountains tonight.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I can type when it's really really cold, but I can't type with three cats keeping warm by sitting on my hands. I'm hoping to survive until the wind gets here.