Sign up for our newsletter
[imgcontainer] [img:Snow_blowing.jpg] [source]Photo by Bryon Houlgrave/The Globe Gazette[/source] In a winter scene more typical than the ones you see in Life magazine, Keith Yarrow clears the driveway of his Mason City, Iowa, home. [/imgcontainer]
It’s fair to say January is tougher to bear for rural Americans. That sounds like the world’s smallest violin playing its typically woeful tune, but it’s true. Just ask any of the many resident rural grumps who develop a chip on their shoulder the first of the year and keep it there until the ice melts in May.
We are, after all, an outdoor people relative to the rest of Pencil-Pusher Nation. When winter plays hardball, as it has this year, it means we’re mostly displaced not just from a workplace (around here that often means field or feedlot) but from the heart and soul of a fresh-air profession, and therefore, an identity. An urban American might call the sudden loss of one’s very job description a bona fide existential identity crisis. Here we just cuss it out and call it winter.
Sure, work gets done on the farm or ranch regardless of how far the mercury falls, but what bites most about a country winter is the sting inherent in the loss of control it brings. It’s still hard for me—who feigns enlightenment and spends more time behind a desk than is good for him—to admit, but we are a thoroughly controlling people, most of us rural routers are…well nigh impossible to please, intolerant of incompetence, possessed of unreachably high standards and Type A personalities that work famously well in the stockyards but don’t exactly fly these days in the touchy-feely meat markets of a Match.com or eharmony.
We’re consummately skilled controllers not just because some Alpha-Controller in our family once painstakingly showed us how, steps A-Z, but because we have to be. Everything must get done, done right and right now, or Mother Nature virtually ensures there will be hell to pay. Opt for the easy chair in lieu of the snow blade on the day after the latest in this perverse season’s parade of storms, and an obliging arctic cold front breezes in and freezes the waist-high snow drifts you left in the lane solid until St. Patty’s Day. The indignity of the permanently drifted-in-drive, in turn, means the cold shoulder of the Better Half and ushers in a season of frigid marital weather and a bed whose sudden chill has more to do with disappointed expectations than bitter north winds. How many kindly and enlightened country spouses, helpless before the grim seasonal disaffections that descend on their loved ones like low pressure systems, have appealed in earnest to the angels of their mate’s better natures, saying of this ill-intentioned season, “But, honey, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Of course, the nothing-to-do-about-it is exactly the crux of the problem.
[imgcontainer] [img:Sheep+Low.jpg] [source]Photo via Premier Farm Diary[/source] Animals need tending even in 4 inches of snow, like these ewes in Washington, Iowa. [/imgcontainer]
Especially in the dark days of winter, minutes matter, machinery matters, and method matters, all of which stoke the fires of perfectionism. Ask any stockman or -woman and they’ll tell you, control in January in a place like Iowa or North Dakota or Oklahoma isn’t a matter of style, it’s a matter of survival. Of course the farmer and the rancher would live longer and at a substantially lower blood pressure if they would only make their peace with the ultimate cage-rattler: Old Man Winter. But to call a truce with such a prodigious bully would be to run contrary to exactly the fighting spirit that allowed our kin to settle such frigid climes as these in the first place. To do as all the townie psychotherapists and New Agers would have us do—take a deep breath, disattach, accept—maybe works while we’re recovering from surgery or a bum knee suffered because of an unlucky spill on the ice, but going-with-the-flow doesn’t stick with us for the same reason we persist in eating buttermilk biscuits and breaded tenderloins the size of dinner plates—because being who we always have been, which is to say true to ourselves, is something valued here where change is designed to be hard to come by. It’s our very predictability that differentiates us from our cousins in the city, who not only seek change, but invite it in and pour it a hot toddy.
Many of us learned our controlling ways from our farming grandmas and grandpas, and along with it the certain knowledge that when you stop fighting and surrender to winter in favor of the easy chair and TiVoed episodes of “Days of Our Lives,” you’re as good as dead anyway. Show me a ruralite living above the Mason Dixon line who really and truly relishes winter, and I’ll show you either a native Minnesotan or someone who drew a regular paycheck in town their entire working life and who’s quietly incubating through this leanest of seasons a particularly fat pension or an especially robust nest egg.
They’re easy enough to ferret out in the wintry countryside, these outlier winter boosters. They’re given away by the light in their eye when they answer the door cheerily on a morning when it’s 20 below, by the way they pull their comb through their coiffed yet slightly mussed hair before joining you outside for a chit-chat beside their rust-free, all-wheel-drive Acura parked in the drive. When they start proselytizing on the pleasures of snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing and all the other positively delightful winter sports almost no one subscribes to in these parts, it’s better just to politely lower your head and stare at your boots till the sermon is through. Odds are good these chirpy advocates of winter have two tickets to Orlando warming in their thermals anyhow. And it’s true: winter might be tolerable if you had a way to escape it, or if you hadn’t battled it like a barroom brawler from the time you were old enough to drive a tractor.
Me, I learned seasonal disaffections under the tutelage of a master—my farming grandfather—who from Easter to Thanksgiving was as lovely and gentle a shepherd as ever trod the greening pastures, and who became the biggest bad-weather bear you ever saw from the first major snowfall onward. As a teenager I found endless amusement in his dark seasonal grumblings—that is, until I grew up and began plowing out my own rural route. Then, and without even thinking, I reached back to borrow my winter color-scheme from him—grays and blues and, yes, occasional blacks.
You see, winter’s only redeeming truth lies in such cold and unerring symmetries.
Zachary Michael Jack is the seventh generation in his family to make his home on an eastern Iowa farm. He is the great-grandson of farm and conservation writer Walter Thomas Jack and 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.