In Des Moines on New Year’s Eve the wind chill hit 31
below, and officials closed the ice skating rink.
In central Kansas, the recent freeze brought a return
of nature’s promise – and one unsettling memory, of a
Saturday in early January eight years ago; I was alone at
the newspaper. A loud noise came from the ceiling not
far from my desk, as if someone had dropped a bowling
ball onto the rafters. In a moment it began to rain in many
places, the kind of rain for which we are grateful in July, or
August – outdoors. But not indoors, not in January.
A water line had frozen, then burst. After frantic phone
calls, help arrived, the water was shut off, and we put a
shop vac to work. The plumber found a two-inch rip in the
(ceiling) water pipe and fixed it. The burst pipe had been
wrapped in heat tape which, the plumber said, was warm.
“Take those below-zero temperatures, combined with terrible
winds,” he declared, “and I’m seeing things freeze
that have never ever frozen before, even indoors…”
That was then. Wasn’t it?
The hard freeze is a hallmark of the Kansas winter.
Although now in decline, the hard freeze remains a measure
of our sense of place. Winter’s sustained cold was
once expected, from pre-Christmas through Valentine’s
Day and beyond, weather that gave footing to the calendar.
There were the occasional balmy surprises, but we knew
winter to be more frigid than not. And until recently, a
winter with prolonged mild weather was unsettling, out of
bounds, like ocean breezes or palm trees.
In Kansas a sustained freeze has been necessary for
nature’s natural reset. A long deep cold stifles the threat of
disease-spreading insects, stops the smaller life forms that
tend to threaten horticulture and agriculture and even spoil
the simple pursuits in spending time outdoors.
Winter’s rebooting, its raw icing, brings a sense of satisfaction
and reassurance; a winter without sustained cold
and good snowfall should provoke unease and suspicion.
And what of dormancy, that nurturing sleep for lawns
and garden? Michael Pollan, the environmental writer,
believes that gardens may require walls in time as well
as space. “The garden winter doesn’t visit is a dull place,
robbed of springtime, unacquainted with the extraordinary
perfume that rises from the soil after it’s had its rest.”
Winter is the landscape’s necessary reboot, says Pollan.
Spring marks the earth’s return to freshness, a promise that
cannot be kept, if not for the frost.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL