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The Bull on the Ice: a Winter's Tale


Havre de Grace -- Awhile back I ventured to write about the weather. The tone of the piece, which appeared January 20, was generally upbeat and much too complacent. It suggested that while this winter has been tough, we were all muddling through, and wasn't it lucky we weren't in California.

There was a trace of sinful pride in it too. By asserting that even at its ugliest our winter weather should be experienced and appreciated, I was implying that those who preferred to hide from it or cuss it out were wimpy and unworthy. "No one can write knowingly of the weather who walks bent over on wet days," wrote E.B. White, equally pridefully, and my tone echoed his.

Big mistake. When I went out on the morning of the 21st it had been raining hard and there was a river roaring over the ice between the house and the barn. It was about knee-deep, and as I waded through it I had the sense that if I were to slip I wouldn't be found before I washed first into Mill Creek, thence into Deer Creek, and finally into the Susquehanna. I stepped very carefully. Talk about walking bent over on wet days; if the late Mr. White had seen me he would have revoked my commentator's license.

Although I didn't fall into the instant river, since then I've fallen just about everywhere else, and have the bruises to prove it. The rains stopped fairly soon, but the Siberian cold came back. That meant ice, and ice means slipping. Getting around has become such a chore that the thought of a little beach house in Santa Barbara suddenly seems very appealing, despite the seismic uncertainties that would go with it.

Around here, although we've all fallen down, the livestock have suffered most. Our fields are all hilly, and for days most of the hills have been impassable. One old horse, trying to come down a steep grade to reach the water trough at the bottom, lost his footing, fell, and slid on his side through a board fence.

Aside from a few cuts and bruises, he survived fairly well, but the veterinarians I talk to tell me plenty of animals in this part of the country haven't been so lucky. A 175-pound human may hit the ground hard, but a 1,000-pound horse or cow hits it a lot harder, and fatal injuries haven't been uncommon.

Our cows have been spending most of their time in a big open shed, but they have to make their way across the icy ground to get to water, and quite a few of them have sore feet. Our first calf of the year, born the day of the floods, hasn't had a bit of trouble, however. She's never seen a world that wasn't covered with ice, and probably assumes this is the way it's supposed to be.

For me, the low point came just after dark one evening when I was on my way back to the house, tired out and looking forward to sitting down beside the stove. Suddenly I noticed that one of our bulls was in a fix. The little field where he's kept was only about half iced over, and he could get around all right if he paid attention. But he'd gotten himself out onto the ice, and now apparently didn't dare to move. Every time he'd start to take a step he'd slip and almost fall.

As a manager, of course, I didn't want him hurt. He's going to have important work to do in a couple of months. But my concern was also humane; I just plain felt sorry for him. So I got a couple of five-gallon buckets of gravelly sand -- we'd bought two truck loads of the stuff, about 20 tons -- and made the bull a little orange pathway over the ice to bare ground.

"All right, bull," I said, "follow the nice orange road." He looked at me in what was probably disgust, turned around, and went off over the ice, ignoring the sand. He slipped several times, but he made it, and didn't look back.

The moon was rising and it was getting cold. What am I doing, I wondered, standing out here in the night, making a gravel pathway for a bull who's too stupid or maybe just too stubborn to use it anyway? In Santa Barbara it would be late afternoon, a good time to sit on the veranda with a margarita and watch the sunset. I picked up the empty five-gallon buckets, climbed out over the fence around the bull's field, and fell down once again on the ice.

It didn't hurt too much -- certainly not as much as the day before when I'd put a wrench in my hip pocket and then moments later fell down on it. But it was embarrassing, and made me think again what a blunder it had been to get all sentimental and sloppy about the winter weather.

The Book of Matthew says that the Lord maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust, but it doesn't say anything about His use of ice. My guess is He may use it from time to time to punish the prideful, much the way a cartoonist uses a banana peel.

So, chastened, I resolved not to write anything too nice about winter for a while, even though as I limped home that night I was struck by the clarity of the air, and thought I'd never seen Orion shining so brilliantly.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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