January 4, 1995
"Seven below," said my nose to me when I stepped outside to get the morning paper, and this time the sensation was so strong-the air in my nostrils so harsh-I was certain of being close to the mark. This time, in fact, I was right on the mark. So were my gloveless fingers, screeching a windchill of twenty-seven below. Now that my bodily gauges seem to be working, I needn't rely on the weather reports or our outdoor thermometer. All I need do is consult my internal thermometer. Or look at the signs all around me. The woodpeckers and starlings squabbling for time at the suet feeder. The sparrows congregating at the seed tray. The surface of the lily pond frozen, except for a slight hole made by the stocktank heater, to help winter over the goldfish. Our Welsh terrier, Pip, scratching to get in just a few minutes after asking to be let out. Our foundling cat, Phoebe, not even asking to be let out. And water sitting in the sink of the downstairs bathroom, evidence that the drainage pipe below had frozen overnight. All the instruments agree that this is the coldest one yet.
Time to put on my long johns, plug in the car, hunker down inside, and wonder, as I always do, how bad it might get before it's all over. Is this the cold wave, the winter storm, that'll outfreeze the worst one I can remember? It swept through here in January 1979, with fifteen inches of snow, then a temperature drop to thirty below and winds gusting up to sixty miles an hour-on a weekend when Kate and I had planned a party to welcome twenty professors from around the country, some of them coming from places as warm as Alabama, California, and Hawaii, to spend six months at an institute on writing that I was directing here in Iowa City. Some welcome! But the thing I remember more than the paralyzing storm was the eagerness it aroused in everyone to brave the elements, to make it here, even at the risk of driving several hundred miles through back roads and closed highways in a ramshackle old Cadillac, as one fellow did coming from Pennsylvania. And then trudging up to our house through waist-high trenches of snow.
I've never been quite so reckless a pioneer, but ever since then I've noticed that winter rouses in me both a sense of menace and a sense of challenge-the haunting look of a dead man's hands that comes whenever my fingers turn white and painful at the slightest exposure to freezing temperatures (Raynaud's syndrome, according to the doctor), and yet my irrepressible desire to confront the worst that nature can throw my way (especially in the comfort of a centrally heated nineteenth-century brick home). Maybe that's what lures me downstairs on days like this to the Plexiglas-covered steps of our outside cellarway, where I winter over a bunch of warm-weather plants just a foot or so away from the bitter cold. The challenge of keeping them going from fall to spring. Bay, lemon grass, rosemary, sage, tarragon, azalea, gerbera, spider plant, and cymbidium orchid (until it's been chilled long enough to begin setting bloomstalks).
When I took up gardening some forty years ago, the season began in April and ended in October-from the end of frost to the onset of frost. But now I'm gardening nonstop from January through December, frost and freeze be damned. And I don't know how I feel about this endless growing season. On the one hand, I like to think of myself as being in tune with nature, so I'm a bit uneasy about all these Plexiglas and polyester contraptions I'm using to defy winter. But there's also a part of me, I guess, that's unwilling to accept the end of the growing season and all that it suggests about the ending of life itself. An unwillingness that puts me in mind of the winter I was nine years old and developed, seemingly out of nowhere, a deep conviction there was something so special about me that I would never die (as both of my parents had several years before). Or maybe my winter gardening is just a matter of liking homegrown produce, or liking to show I can produce it under any conditions. In every garden (and gardener), there's a snake lurking somewhere on the premises.