I was driving around the province last month trying to get to three distant and remote places on the same weekend just as winter gave its last wheeze and died. An ice storm swept up from the south, paralyzing all of the weather forecasters from Windsor to Ottawa. At first I thought of cancelling engagements, but when I heard CBC announce the ‘Storm of the Century,’ I was pretty sure it wouldn’t amount to much.
I would pay more attention to storm warnings if the Rotarians and the soil and crop enthusiasts that organize these events would do the same. But they don’t. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. They all show up at the hall in droves for a roast beef dinner and a little fellowship. That is what winter is for, after all.
So I steered around the storm, keeping the wind on my right like a good ship captain and arrived at each spot without mishap. During the last Storm of the Century, two years ago, I was confined to the house for three days. But it was hard to blame that on the weather. We got a hard rain in early January, followed by a flash freeze. The snowbanks on either side of the dead-end road that leads to our farm trapped the water in a shallow lake that froze overnight to a depth of two inches — not quite enough to support the truck. Our township snowplow guy picked that week to go ice fishing and his replacement breezily informed me that he didn’t “do” ice. That left us stuck in the farmhouse for three days until we finally organized a dinner party and invited one of the neighbours to bring his backhoe.
My wife loves a good storm. She sits bolt upright in bed when she hears that buses are cancelled. She jumps out of bed, stokes up the fires and starts to cook. There’s a whiff of adventure in the air. She believes other people will be safer at our house where she can keep an eye on them and feed them. By noon the house is full of sisters and cousins whom she reckons up by dozens.
I once read the letters of a saddleback preacher who ministered to the pioneers of this community in the 1840s. He complained how difficult it was to give comfort to his parishioners through the long winters because he was so depressed himself he didn’t want to get out of bed. But that was the first generation. By the 1860s they had built churches and community halls and were busy hosting debating societies and putting on plays. The great thing about winter for farmers is that nothing grows and you have to learn to do something else.
Canadians are the only people I know who look at the weather like a credit card. If we get an extra month of crappy weather in winter we feel like we have something better coming to us. But if we get too many clear bright days in short-sleeve weather, we grow anxious. A Canadian is the only person who stands out on the veranda on a bright, warm, windless spring day, as the birds sing and the buds burst, and says darkly, “We’ll pay for this.”
There was an old guy I grew up with who was a sailor, a shepherd and a weather sage. He was plugged into an enormous database of bizarre Celtic incantations that offered a rhyming couplet for all occasions. It was sort of like Hallmark cards for Druids. He would step out on the front stoop, pause and squint at a pale moon, and mutter, “There’s water in her eye,” which meant rain when you didn’t want it. Or he might glance up at the chimney and declare, “When smoke descends, fair weather ends.” Sometimes he would glare at birds in the fields and say, “Seagulls on the sand,” which I didn’t learn till years later was one half of a dark observation about gulls coming to the land whenever a storm threatened at sea.
None of these predictions ever offered happy news. I once asked him what two rings around the sun meant, and his dour reply was: “Basically crap weather for the next six months.” Squeaky chairs, catchy drawers and sticky salt all worked together to reinforce a message of doom.
Apparently these things are genetic because his grandson became a weather forecaster for the CBC.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.