In the countryside, winter may not defeat you. But it will teach the value of a strategic retreat. Come inside and warm up for a minute – the snow will wait.
The poet Wallace Stevens wrote about something he called the “Mind of Winter.” But for an agrarian like me, winter begins at the feet.
Numb feet serve as a natural governor of my Protestant work ethic and my tendency to “overdo it,” as my father (a farmer-overdoer if ever there was one) always said. He also said, “You don’t need to shoot yourself in the foot to know that it hurts,” another one-size-fits-all, podiatrical metaphor perfectly apt for overzealousness on the farm and off it.
When I was a child there was no Weather Channel. We never thought to name winter storms sexily, like breezy rogues or cold jezebels. Instead of arriving at our door sporting chilling names like Octavia, Hektor, and Pandora, our storms came bearing more homely monikers: Looks Real Bad, or my grandpa’s favorite, Damn It All to Hell.
Back then no glad-handing, good Sam of a citified, certified weatherman had to tell us to stay home when the weather soured. Staying home was precisely what the spade-work of planting and sewing and digging out entailed. In ordinary weather the prospect of going to town positively underwhelmed. The thought of going there when the North winds howled and a Hektor or a Wolf or a Gorgon had us by the shorthairs had us doubly nonplussed.
I appreciate now all the subtle ways winter brought us together back then. It brought my father and grandfather down from the Olympian heights of their John Deere cabs to do something plain and plebian like shovel snow with women and children.
Snow-moving and other “winter sports” on the farm fell into predictable patterns once the hard-driven men blew in. First, we would work on the hairy, maniacal edge of frostbite for what seemed like days until someone in the group, usually an elder, would lean on their shovel and declare “Whaddya say we go in and warm up for a spell?” What they really meant was “Jesus, I can’t feel my toes!” or “Mary Mother of God, we’ve got to get inside before we all perish!” but they couldn’t let on. It’s fair to say that during the other nine months of the year I believed my farm elders were invincible. I never once heard them say the word “can’t,” for example. Never did I hear them utter, “Shoot, we might as well just throw in the towel and watch us some cable television.” Still winter and its chill gave them proper pause.
Retreating into the house for a brief warm-up didn’t constitute defeat. We had merely retired to rally the troops and stoke our flagging fires. Coffee and hot cocoa and a fresh pair of wool socks were our way of saying, Look out, you son-of-bitch-of-the-mother-of-all-winter-storms, we’re coming for you when we’re good and ready.
Nearly 40 years have passed since that first time I saw Old Man Winter turn my family’s invincible elders back inside with us kids in tow. Nowadays, when I hear my farm scoopmate or shovel-buddy mouth the sweet words, “Let’s go in and warm up a bit,” I think about grace—how it never falls out of fashion, how stopping to warm up is nothing more nor less than an acknowledgement of our human limits. And when I think back on a year of political gridlock, pandemic, and rampant and ruthless war, I think there must be something wise in listening deeply, in leaning on one’s shovel to propose not a capitulation, but a temporary cessation. There must be something holy in coming in to regroup at the exact moment when the feet begin to tingle, the heart begins to fail, and the body can no longer bear what the eye despairs.
Today, tomorrow, or 10 minutes from now, mountains will still need moving after all. And if we intend to be standing when heaven and earth are moved, we’ll want to be able to feel our toes.
Zachary Michael Jack is the seventh generation in his family to make his home on an eastern Iowa farm. He is the author, most recently, of The Midwest Farmer's Daughter: In Search of an American Icon. He teaches courses in place studies and writing at North Central College.