The Comforts of Snow and Barns and 'Hook'


Havre de Grace. -- As I went to the barn the other morning just before daylight, there was a pretty good imitation of a blizzard in progress. That pleased me, because it had begun to look as though we were in for another dreary snowless winter.

The snow had covered the ground and was flying sideways on the wind, thick and fast, just the way it does when the roads are about to drift shut. In the barn, I stopped and watched it for a few minutes, and a little later, after feeding the cows in the big open shed we only use in bad weather, I watched some more.

I enjoy watching cattle eat almost any time, but there's something especially rewarding about watching them while they're under cover and the snow's coming down outside. With hay in the rack and soft bedding underfoot, they're snug and secure, and that's as satisfactory to me as it is to them.

We have 34 cows due to calve this year. The bull went out to visit with them last April 19, and by the end of January calves had begun to drop. This mild winter has been easy on them, and as their first snow came down these early arrivals stood in the shed and looked out curiously at it while their mothers chewed.

Before very long, though, the mini-blizzard ended, the sun came out, and the half-inch on the ground began to melt away. I was sorry to see it go.

The meteorologists say that in a normal year, whatever that is, we should get about 42 inches of rain in our part of Maryland. Last year, according to my gauge, we only received 30. Those 30 inches were well distributed, and the farm made it through the year without serious difficulty, but it was worrisome, and the water level in most ponds around here is still a foot or more below the overflow point. This year has started out to be dry, too. Last month, it only rained about an inch and a half.

A good snowfall of a foot or more wouldn't come near making up the accumulated rain deficit, but it would help. That's the practical reason why I was sorry when the snow stopped. But I also like the way everything looks after a serious snowfall, and I wouldn't deny I like sledding with my kids.

In the February 17 edition of The New Republic, Fred Barnes makes the valid observation that at times it seems as if the major division in American society isn't between rich and poor or liberals and conservatives, but between those who have school-age children and those who don't.

People actively engaged in parenthood stay closer to home, says Fred, who is and does. They don't go out as much in the evening, and on the weekends they're more likely to be watching kids' soccer than going to the symphony. If they go to the movies, it's more likely to see "Hook" or "Beauty and the Beast" than one of the current hits about neurotic psychiatrists.

Most parents would probably agree that if leading such a schedule represents a sacrifice, it's a modest one, and one for which they're abundantly compensated by the many rewards of having children. But even so, it's an awkward fact that leading a parent's life can inhibit conversation about contemporary adult topics, and make parents feel dull and unsophisticated when in the company of non-parents. Active singles and DINK (double income, no kids) couples don't go to "Hook."

Of course, some similar discomfort is the occasional lot of anyone whose life is sharply focused, no matter on what. When Irna and I were running a small family business, we went 15 years without ever taking a vacation together for more than a week. But we'd frequently encounter people who worked for big companies and who said our rather circumscribed life sounded idyllic.

"Well, it has its problems," we'd say, which of course it always did. "And what have you been doing lately?"

"Oh, the same old grind," would be a typical response. "But we did go to the Bahamas last fall, and this spring we're going to spend a couple of weeks in Portugal." We didn't really envy them those travels, but hearing about them did tend to make us feel sort of pokey and parochial.

A farm, even a small one like ours, is like a family or another kind of small business. It isn't easy to go off and leave it, both because it might need you and -- the real reason -- because you secretly know that you don't want to miss any of the interesting things that are constantly happening in that narrow little world.

An unabashedly elitist professor I once encountered used to say that students came in two kinds, symbolized by the arrow and the teacup. Arrow students flew off on splendid careers, while teacup students stayed home by the hearth. He made it quite clear, by his choice of metaphors, which type he preferred.

Obviously, neither life nor people are as simple as the professor suggested; most of us are a mixture of arrow and teacup, and heaven knows what else, too. Besides, as Fred Barnes implies, there are times in one's life when circumstances dictate which symbol will dominate. The most arrowy people in the world may still find themselves in the teacuppy role of driving a carload of 9-year-olds to "Hook," and enjoying it enormously.

I've always been a latent teacup, and am now pretty well confirmed in my habits. Even when I leave home for a few hours I feel a twinge, and wonder what'll be going on while I'm away. There's always something. If I'd been in Portugal the other morning instead of in the cowshed, I would have missed the mini-blizzard. As this was a noteworthy event in the life of the farm and especially impressive to its small audience of week-old calves, I'm glad I was there, too.

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