In winter, when the only things growing seem to be icicles and irritability, what pleasures exist for a gardener? Or for anyone living in a northern climate? And in a year of El Niño, what effect does the unpredictable climate have on the soil and the psyche? In his distinctive daybook, Weathering Winter, Carl Klaus reminds readers that the season of brown twigs and icy gales is just as much a part of the year as when tulips open, tomatoes thrive, and pumpkins and gourds color the brown earth.
From the first cold snap of late December 1994 to the first outdoor planting of onion sets and radishes in mid-March 1995, Klaus kept track of the weather, the garden, and his life. His careful, daily observations include the unexpected and bizarre weather disruptions caused by El Niño, which scientists are predicting will once again affect people throughout the world this coming winter.
Gardeners and lovers of the out-of-doors will recognize themselves in the ways that Klaus has come to terms with the harsh weather and chilly truths that winter embodies. His constant, careful checks on the temperature outside and the seedlings inside, his contentment in the basil- and garlic-flavored tomato sauce he cooked up from last season’s crops, and his walks with his wife in the bitter chill of starry January nights reflect the pull between indoors and out, the contrast between the beauty and the cruelty of the season.
Winter. Beloved of cross-country skiers, downhill racers, ice skaters, snowballers, nowmen, and snowplow manufacturers. Also beloved of folks who live in Tampa, San Diego, Honolulu, and other tropical spots where arctic weather advisories are never heard, except as good news for the tourist trade. But for most people who live in the temperate zone, winter is a time of plummeting temperatures, soaring heat bills, freezing rain, stalled cars, frozen pipes, and frigid ground. The season from hell, where beneath the fires in Dante’s inferno, lies the ninth circle, the lowest level, the place of eternally freezing cold. No wonder so many people have moved from the Snowbelt deep into the Sunbelt, where the ground never freezes and the year never dies. Where the gardening season and the homegrown vegetables never end. I too have thought from time to time about making the move, especially when I’ve been walking the four-mile stretch of beach along Hanelei Bay on the north shore of Kauai in late December or early January. The sand under my feet, the sun on my cheek, Kate by my side, and the mild Pacific air all around me in a warm embrace. I’ve even gone so far as to thumb through real estate ads for beachfront homes along that fabled bay, where South Pacific was filmed and Bali Hai is forever visible in the middle distance of one’s mind. But soon enough reality takes hold again, and not just in the form of real estate prices far beyond my pocket book, but also in the haunting voice that rises within me, sounding its strange refrain-“But how about winter? How about winter? Could you really give it up forever?” Then I know that winter is deep within my bones, from sixty-five years of weathering its cold embrace in places like Ohio, Michigan, New York, Maine, and Iowa.
But why the winter holds me and how I make it through-those are questions I never before tried to answer except in the pages of the daybook I kept during the winter of 1994-95. A time of year so apparently at odds with the very thought of gardening that when I started the year-long journal that eventually turned into both Weathering Winter and My Vegetable Love, some of my well-meaning friends and colleagues advised me just to skip over the winter months and get on with the growing season. They seemed to be telling me, in one way or another, that growth doesn’t take place in winter, as if everything were temporarily on hold until spring, as if winter gardening were a contradiction in terms, and winter itself so forbidding a time that no one could possibly want to read about it. But I couldn’t help thinking about the gardening catalogues that arrive in winter and the gardening dreams and the gardening squabbles with Kate about what to grow and where to grow it. And the snow falling, the birds flocking in, the icicles growing, the cabin fever rising, the buds swelling, and the seed trays coming to life overnight. So much to write about I could hardly resist.
Besides, I couldn’t help thinking that winter, after all, makes up a quarter of the year, a quarter of our lives, and that all of us sooner or later must find a way of weathering its intimations of mortality, no matter where we live.
December 31, 1994
“I’m going out to feed the birds.” And out she went, the back door and storm door clattering behind her. Kate, in her Wellington boots, corduroy pants, and my old hooded parka, traversing the same path she’s been trekking the past twenty-five winters. So familiar, I can see it with my eyes closed. A brief stop on the back porch to fill the two-quart plastic cup with mixed seed, then across the limestone terrace, up the stone steps by the gazebo, up the sloping yard by the big vegetable garden, to the hundred-year-old pear tree, standing like a sentinel in the middle of our backyard, a house-shaped bird feeder dangling from its lowest branch. But if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn’t have seen the snow falling this afternoon, enough already on the ground for Kate’s footprints to be clearly visible from the porch to the tree and then back again to fill the feeder a few feet beyond our kitchen window. Eyes closed or open, though, I certainly would have heard the urgency in her voice. I’ve heard that terse announcement about going to feed the birds so many times that I know it’s not just a statement about going to feed the birds. It’s really about the weather turning bad, the birds in trouble, or, in this case, winter finally having arrived after an incredibly long-drawn-out fall. So warm a week ago that for Christmas Eve dinner, Kate made a purée of leek and potato soup with fresh leeks from our garden, as well as Russian borscht with fresh beets from our garden. Tonight, by contrast, the only homegrown stuff was some fresh parsley I harvested from under the row covers. I wish we also had some of our own French chives from the herb bed to mince up with the parsley and mix in with the grated garlic and the cracker crumbs and the olive oil and the lemon juice for topping the quick-baked oysters on the half shell. But when Kate and I were sitting across from each other at her candlelit table, sipping our champagne and eating our traditional New Year’s Eve dinner of baked oysters, I could hardly tell the difference between our homegrown chives and the store-bought scallions I used instead. I could tell the difference between the store-bought endive and our delicate frisée that was frozen out by a brief cold snap in early December. But the peeled fresh grapefruit sections and the pomegranate seeds and the celery seed dressing on top of the greens were so piquant that the difference hardly mattered, especially after a few glasses of champagne and a few hearty toasts to the new year and the snow and the advent of winter.
January 1, 1995
New Year’s day and a newly fallen snow, completely covering the ground. So pristine in the early morning sun it makes me wonder why no one ever sings about dreaming of a white new year. A fresh start. Last year’s leavings so well hidden, it’s momentarily hard for me to believe how green things were just a week ago. And warm enough too on Christmas day that I was walking around outside in just a shirt and a lightweight sweater. And so were my daughter, Hannah, and my son-in-law Monty and my grandchildren Ben and Lizzie, visiting from California. Actually, it almost felt as if I were in California rather than here in Iowa. And well I might have been, given the radishes and turnips I was harvesting, thanks to the warmth of the fall and my spun-bond, polyester row-covers. But now, all the marks of that day are gone. Hannah and Monty back in California. The radishes and turnips eaten, row covers put away, the soil turned and completely covered with a different kind of white. The row cover of winter.
Still, the snowcover’s not so thick that I can’t see the rolls and ripples of the land beneath it. Especially when I’m looking down on it from my big windows up here in our attic-study. The outlines of the garden beds are also visible from here. And the heavings of the turned soil in the beds. And the remnants of Kate’s footprints back and forth to the bird feeder in the pear tree. The snow turns the landscape into a memory of itself, selectively marking the comings and goings, the doings and undoings that have taken place on it during the past several months, or weeks, or days, or hours. Preserving the rabbit tracks and deer tracks of the pre-dawn morning. Concealing the frozen shreds of lettuce and leek at the newly turned end of the vegetable garden.
But there’s nothing like getting outside to take the measure of things-or have them take the measure of you. Before going for a walk with Kate in midafternoon, I thought the wind was relatively light. Just a slight swing of the feeder in the pear tree and a faint rustle of dried clematis at the end of the gazebo. Nothing to worry about. But we weren’t out more than a minute or two, when Kate, who doesn’t ordinarily fret about such things, announced matter-of-factly “The wind is sharp.” And a few minutes later, “It’s steady on.” And a few minutes later, “There’s ice in it.” Sometimes winter is best in small doses, especially at first. So we headed back home again, where I checked the Weather Channel and discovered that the temperature was eleven degrees above and the wind blowing at sixteen miles an hour to produce a wind-chill factor of seventeen degrees below. No more dreaming of a white new year. I’m still remembering a green Christmas.
January 2, 1995
A week ago the weather was so balmy that the pussy willows at the back of the yard were beginning to open, and I was thinking about planting a few radish seeds in the back vegetable bed, where I’d just finished harvesting the last of the turnips. But today it probably won’t get above twenty, tonight it’s supposed to hit ten or fifteen below zero, and a bitter cold spell is predicted to hang on for the next several days.
So now I’m wondering how I could ever have been beguiled into thinking I could bring on another crop of radishes under the row covers. You’d think that thirty-two years of living in Iowa would have convinced me that winter in the upper Midwest inevitably delivers at least one arctic cold spell, usually more, usually in January, and the sun never gets high enough in the sky to deliver the necessary light and heat for a crop of radishes or anything else. But even Kate, who was born and raised just twenty miles north of here, who knows the seasonal truths far better than I-even Kate thought it might be worth trying a few radish seeds. What is it, I wonder, that leads us to suppose a pleasant quirk in the weather might turn into a long run of balmy days? The power of suggestion? The dread of winter and of wintry reflections? The yearning for spring? The hunger for spring radishes? Or just the force of the moment itself and all its pleasing sensations-the gentleness of the air, the warmth of the sun, the feel of the soil, the delicate taste of the row-covered spinach that made it through the early December cold snap?
Whatever the case, I’m now wondering if the spinach will survive this harsh cold spell. But then again, if the row-covered parsley made it through last year’s bitter January, why not the spinach? And the late-planted shallot bulbs? And the row-covered thyme on the south end of the gazebo? And the pair of artichoke plants too? After all, nothing is certain here except death, taxes, and a January cold snap.
January 3, 1995
By this point in the winter, my bodily thermometer is usually so well calibrated that it comes within a few degrees of the weather reports. But the drop this year has been so sudden that I’m not yet capable of accurately feeling the difference between seven above, as it was this morning, and seven below, which was more what it felt like, probably because the windchill then was eighteen below. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll also get attuned to the onset of the mortal chill, so I can track its progress as calmly as the falling temperature.
I’m not yet adjusted to the cost of the store-bought vegetables either, as I discovered from a trip to the local supermarket this afternoon. Just a month or so ago, we were still eating the last of the fresh peppers I’d harvested from the garden in early November. But now, a medium-sized green pepper with a few telltale wrinkles on its shoulders cost me 89 cents. And the lettuce situation is even more disturbing, especially when I think about all the greens I was gradually harvesting just a few weeks ago-buttercrunch heads, green leaf, purple oak leaf, arugula, and endive, all flourishing under row covers until the night of December 10, when the temperature plunged below zero, froze all the greens, and then just as quickly warmed up again, as if to taunt me for hoarding all my produce under row covers. Now, the spray-soaked stuff at the supermarket is selling for $1.89 a pound.
During my Depression-era childhood in Cleveland, Ohio, one couldn’t get fresh peppers or lettuce in January for any amount of money. So perhaps I shouldn’t be complaining about the cost of supermarket produce. Maybe I should be celebrating the elaborate national and international network of growers and wholesalers and refrigeraters and shippers and merchandisers that make it possible for me to buy a green pepper to put in the creole baked snapper I’m planning to cook this evening. But then again, there’s a part of me that likes to get my produce closer to home. So, after all, the most tasty and satisfying parts of the baked snapper will be our homegrown, home-canned tomatoes that I fetch up from the basement and the fresh thyme I’ve already harvested from the row-covered herbs at the end of the gazebo. When I brought the thyme clippings into the house, they smelled as dusky and rank as if it were still midsummer-and it still was, at least in my nose, at least for a moment.
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.
January 5, 1995
In every gardener, there’s also a dream lurking somewhere on the premises, especially during the bitterly cold days of a winter deepfreeze. The dream of an early spring day that’s sunny enough and warm enough to be outside in the garden. Or a dream of the first summer harvest. Or the first ripe tomato. Or the first fresh tomato sauce, redolent with the aroma of fresh chopped basil and minced garlic. And there’s nothing like the arrival of the spring gardening catalogues to help the dream along, glowing with emblems of summer. A ripe tomato (or two or three) prominently in the foreground of almost every cover, like the watercolor still-life of vegetables on the Shepherd’s Seed catalogue that turned up in the mailbox this afternoon. And not only some glowing red tomatoes, but also a glossy purple eggplant, a cranberry-colored head of radicchio, a bright yellow pepper sitting next to a green pepper turning red at the top of its shoulders, a couple heads of pale white garlic, a few sprigs of basil, and a big crinkly green leaf of kale, all appetizingly arrayed upon a bright blue-and-yellow-striped tablecloth. As sunny as summer itself.
As sunny as winter, too, at least for the moment. No matter how bad the temperature or the windchill gets in January, the sun seems to shine more brightly now than at any other time of the year. An illusion aided, no doubt, by its low angle in the sky and its reflection on the snow. It shines more regularly too. Five days in a row so far. The color of its reflected light and the texture of the shadows it casts on the snow change continuously, as I can see from my third-floor perspective. Early this morning at sunrise, it cast a shadowless orange aura over the backyard. A few hours later the yard seemed bathed in a piercingly white light, broken only by the sharply defined and very dark shadows of the trees. A few hours later, the shadows began to soften and the light turned faintly yellow. And now, late in the afternoon, the shadows have completely disappeared, the snow is grayish, and soon it will change color again at the fabled blue hour.
No wonder the Scandinavians cherish the sun so much they’ve developed a special light bulb to compensate for the long periods when they’re deprived of sunlight. I first heard about such light bulbs when I was reading the newspaper this morning, and one of them exploded in the table lamp just a few feet from my head, scattering its pale purple shards on the carpet around my feet. A few minutes later, Kate hustled downstairs to see what had happened, and it was then that she explained to me how these light bulbs are meant to “cut down on depression and lift your spirits,” because, as one of the ads for them reports, “their bright, glare free light is the closet thing to natural daylight.” Natural daylight, thank God, doesn’t explode just a few feet from my head, but it does lift my spirits. Even now, when its glow is barely perceptible in the snow that is so blue, so blue as to be inseparable from the sky.