Down in the basement, the furnace labors. It thumps ominously, and then after further coughs and fibrillations flat quits.
Silence. The house chills down in an hour or two. Water in the pipes jells up and starts to freeze. The radiator in the downstairs bedroom cracks. A case of Diet Cokes in the kitchen bloats to solid ice, each can swollen to bursting, like the Incredible Hulk. Now the water pipes give way. We step outside for firewood to stoke the wood stove, and we gasp: Our breath emerges in jagged-crystal puffs under a cold headlight moon.
I live on a farm in upstate New York, at 1,000 feet, in the foothills of the Berkshires. On the ridge above the house, coyotes yip and howl in the metaphysical cold, and the deer hunker down among the hemlocks. And the plumber, it turns out, is booked up through May.
Will someone please call Al Gore? I'd like to check on global warming's schedule for the rest of the winter.
I'm getting neurotic. The weather makes me, shall we say, existentially nervous. Partly, this may be a spinoff from the self-important millennium, which spilled inarticulate little anxieties here and there in the mind. The anticipation of the world crossing a line and changing irreversibly transformed into an alien place where nature is haywire and old rules (even familiar cycles of seasons and temperatures) no longer apply all that seems unofficially confirmed by wild meteorological swings.
Out-of-control events of nature have been visiting regularly for a few years now, of course. Think to pick an example almost at random of the summer of 1993, when rain poured down biblically for weeks and the Mississippi overflowed to become a vast, shallow brown ocean and submerged the Midwest's farms like an agricultural Atlantis. The entire country steamed like Bangkok; power systems died trying to satisfy the air conditioners' demands; old people keeled over in the doomy heat.
What's strange is that the apocalyptic cold we enjoy at the moment (the wind chill is 40 below zero outside as I write this), has fallen like a guillotine after an early winter that seemed unnaturally and irreversibly warm. What's going on? During the balmy holidays a few weeks ago, I fell into a vague sense of elegy about old-time winters, thinking they would never come again. I stored my goosedown parka in the closet with my summer clothes. I am practically sleeping in the parka now.
All this unease (about abnormal warming, about unnatural freezing) may express a sneaking self-absorption. Weather is connected to ego, I think nature projects moods upon us, and we project back. It's a variation on this pattern: A man imagines that the world must be incomparably better or incomparably worse in his time than it was before he arrived on the planet. To admit that life is 99.9 percent continuum (human nature and weather itself being more or less constant, with certain variations, and things tending to even out over the centuries, except for occasional ice ages) might make the man feel ordinary or, in any case, not sufficiently superior to millions of his predecessors who, after all, suffer the hugely disqualifying human defect of being, at the present time, dead. Being alive brings with it a certain prestige, and a tendency to exaggerate.
We imitate the weather in running to extremes: Thus, for example, we insult the past by overestimating the present's enlightenment and wonders, denigrating much of what came before; or else, reversing the error, we insult the present by imagining it to be dramatically worse (more depraved, for example, more satanic, even) than the past was. I'll have the best of times, please, but if those are not available, make it the worst of times.
This is not the moment to discuss global warming, which of course violates the law of 99.9 percent continuum. But note, for what it is worth, that weather has always acted fierce and screwy from time to time. I look up Edmund Morris's description (in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt) of the winter of 1886-87, which settlers called the Winter of the Blue Snow. At the end of January the Dakota Indians' "Moon of Cold-Exploding Trees" there came banging down the worst storm in frontier history: "Children wandering out of doors froze to death within minutes... Women in isolated ranches went mad; men shot themselves and each other. Many cattle exposed on the prairie were too weak to withstand the gale: They simply blew over and died. Others kept their footing, until their hoofs were locked in ice, and they froze like so many statues."
After the New Madrid earthquake in the early 19th century, the Mississippi River ran northward for a little while, and millions of Deep South squirrels, with one mind, began migrating in one vast, crazed undulation toward Kentucky.
I am happy to report no one has gone mad on our farm this winter. We pile on stove wood and wait for spring, when the skies will open and rain frogs.