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By River Stillwood
The weather has been rough, these last few months. The persistent heat. The lingering drought. But summer is growing haggard. Autumn is ready to pounce. Already the box elders are losing their leaves and walnut canopies look moth eaten and threadbare. Sassafras is turning orange and sumac, red. Dirt crackles under tires. Plumes of billowing dust trail vehicles. Weeds are claiming baked earth abandoned by grass. Damp rings and muddy puddles languish where ponds used to stand. Many creeks are barely trickling. Some of the farmers are already feeding hay.
Still, there is enough time for one more burst of summer glory. Rain. Rain is on the horizon. Cool, nurturing rain. Days of it. Splendid, beautiful soaking rain. With luck, when fall officially arrives next week, the hills and hollers will be replenished. The air will be fresh. The afternoons, inviting. The nights, clear. It should be a wonderful end to a season that has felt too long, too hot, too dry.
I worry a little, though. Exceptionally hot summers are often followed by exceptionally cold winters. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the 2012 long range forecast for the Heartland calls for a warmer, dryer winter. But, just last week, nighttime temperatures in the Ozarks were so cold that they broke records that had stood for fifty years. I haven’t spied any wooly worms yet, and it’s too early to check persimmon seeds, but some of the folks who have lived here awhile say they’re expecting a bad winter. I’m with them. Especially since we haven’t seen one in the almost eight years I’ve lived here and those same folks say we’re due.
Honestly, though, I don’t know what a bad Ozarks winter looks like. I thought my first winter here was bad. In mid-December the forecast called for a light dusting of snow during the night. Instead, eleven inches fell and I woke up with the roof of the tent cabin so laden and sagging that it was only a foot from my face. And I was sleeping on the ground.
It occurred to me later that, if the deadwood I’d used to frame the tent cabin had broken while I slept, I would have been trapped under the tarp roof and heavy snow and likely been killed. Instead, the frame held and I crawled out of the tent in my pajamas and bare feet and used a rake to clear off the snow. An hour later, the snow was off, the roof had sprung back to its normal height, and I was back in my sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep.
That was the worst that winter had to offer. A few years later, though, we had that dreadful ice storm that wreaked so much havoc on Springfield and surrounding areas. Enough ice fell at the homestead that it collapsed the roofs on the feed shed and turkey coop and dropped a couple of trees by the cabin. I wasn’t able to leave the holler for nine days. Still, I was lucky. The cabin was unscathed, warm, safe and secure. The greatest hardship I endured was having to slide on my belly to the creek to fetch water for the animals because the stone bank was too treacherous to stand upon.
Actually, the past two winters were the worst I’ve seen. Not because of snow or ice or even wind or unbearably low temperatures. They were the worst because I couldn’t get out in them. I couldn’t walk in the woods or play in the snows or stay outside long enough to get rosy red cheeks and fingertips and toes that stung with cold. I didn’t get to see bright cardinals alighting on frosted branches or flocks of chickadees filling the bushes with their happy chatter. Instead, I watched the season pass slowly by from the front window of the apartment while I was curled up under a wonderfully warm Raggedy Ann and Andy blanket undergoing, and then recovering from cancer treatments. Comfortable as I was, letting my body do the work that it needed to do, missing winter was a huge loss.
I hope it won’t be a bad winter, that it’s mild and easy. But good or bad, with luck and hope, I’ll be strong and healthy, fully prepared to march right outside to greet it. Of course, if it is a bad winter, if blizzards blow and snow piles up and winds howl like hungry wolves at the door, I’ll be just as ready to run back inside. But only to wait until things quiet down again. After all, one of winter’s finest gifts is the perfect silence that comes just after the snow.