Lately, I’ve been touting the virtues of daily chores to whoever will listen. In fact, a friend and I started recording a podcast called “Stacking Bales,” the basic premise of which is that the daily labors of a farmer or rancher (stacking bales of hay, for example) are a beautiful antidote for the malaise of modern life.
In the age of high-speed internet and never-ending screen time, too often our work and leisure melt into cyberspace, with little to no evidence that either ever existed in the material world.
Thus, a recent episode of the podcast had me going on and on about how getting outside in the winter to fork hay, haul water, or do any of the other myriad of jobs required to keep livestock healthy during the cold months was a blessing.
I even went so far as to say it could single-handedly prevent the doldrums and cabin fever that is endemic to living this far north.
In retrospect, this has me shaking my head. Had I forgotten every previous February over the last 10 years of living on the ranch? Apparently, I had, as doing daily chores has not prevented either the doldrums or cabin fever during previous winters.
I strongly suspect this memory lapse was a result of an unusually warm late January and early February. Doing winter chores IS delightful when the sun is shining, the wind isn’t blowing, and the temperature is hovering in the +30s. It IS healthy and helpful to be breathing great, gusty lungfuls of fresh air, your blood pumping, your foggy thoughts suddenly brighter and more coherent.
Winter chores when the temperature drops below zero when the horizon is obscured because the sky is as pearly gray as the snow-covered fields, when the bitter wind pulls the hay off the pitchfork before it ever makes it to the animals, well, that’s a different story altogether.
Perhaps you’ve already guessed, Dear Reader, that last week featured the latter, not the former kind of weather. A massive winter storm was predicted to drop a foot of snow, followed by 50-60 mile-an-hour winds and real temperatures in the negative double digits, and while there was less snowfall than expected, the rest arrived right on schedule.
Let me just tell you, getting outside to do chores in that kind of weather is bracing, and certainly feels something like an adventure, but I can also personally attest that it in no way prevents cabin fever, especially when you have two young children, two young dogs and way too many house cats.
To say we were all driving each other bonkers by week’s end would be a huge understatement. But here’s the thing about certain swaths of winter on the Northern Plains, especially if you live on an isolated ranch: You just have to keep waking up, bundling up, heading out, heading in and trying not to give up hope that life will someday include outside time that doesn’t feel death defying.
Oh yeah, and you have to hold on tight to the knowledge that you will someday get to leave your yard and see other humans — or just a different view than white on white on white.
Yesterday, the sun finally came out again for a few hours. “You can tell it’s getting close to spring,” my husband said. “There’s power in that sun.”
The kids leapt and slid along the new snow drifts. The sheep and horses and yearling calves lined up along tin windbreaks to sunbath. The chickens left their coop for the first time in days.
During morning chores, I stopped in the middle of forking hay to sit on the bale for a minute, enjoying the feeling of being almost TOO warm from the exercise, inhaling the unlikely mingled scent of summer hay and fresh snow.
So, maybe, winter chores aren’t so bad. Maybe they really are the antidote to the malaise of modern life. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make it through March. April, when we often get our worst blizzards, now that’s a different story…
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