Posts Tagged ‘historic New England’
This is a tire track left by a city snow-plow in a park.
After last winter’s almost surreal amount of snow, this winter has been a balm for our backs and psyches. Of course we’ve shoveled snow a few times in the past two months, and more may yet fall from the skies, but anything that has fallen has dutifully melted within a day or two. But, of course it has been wet and cold with good melts in between, and that creates mud. Mud in New England is so much a part of late winter it gets its own season, and this year mud season has lasted most of the winter. I wrote this a few winters ago, and this year seemed like a good one to bring it back.
Before the age of corduroy roads; in places where no one had the good sense or ability to lay down a bed of gravel, the roads of New England were dirty and dusty. In the summer, towns sent out large barrels of water which were carted through busy streets and country roads, spraying water to keep down the dust. In winter, the roads were rutted and frozen. During the cold months snow-covered roads were more easily passable, and therefore snow-covered streets were preferable to those that were clear or melted.
But between the snowy or rutted roads of winter, and the dry, dusty streets of summer, there is a separate season. It comes just at the end of winter: we call it mud season. After months of hard freeze, the warm days and cold nights create inches thick mud that seems to sink downward with no end. Some years there is no one freeze that lets go at the beginning of spring. Some winters there is a never-ending freeze/thaw cycle; mud season from November to April.
In fields and woodlands, this cycle brings the ubiquitous boulders, called fieldstones, from deep in the earth. Deposited by three miles high glaciers from the Wisconsin Ice Sheet that ended about 25,000 years ago, these rocks were pried out of the fields each spring, and moved to the edges of the fields by strong young men, creating the stone walls that outline the border of every New England homescape.
This year mud season has been fantastic. Even with concrete sidewalks and macadam streets, the mud from yards and gardens oozes over, practically bubbling up in an icy mess that gets into the deep treads of our Vibram soles and covers floors of mud rooms, kitchen doorways, and front halls throughout the region. All this mud reminds me of a story told in early New England on this subject.
In times past, the mud of early spring was often many feet deep. One day, during such a year, a horseman was riding down a muddy road when he saw a fine hat lying in the lane. Because the hat was a nice one, and worth a bit of money, the rider got off his horse and went to pick it up. When he looked at the road under the hat, he noticed the face of a man staring up at him from the muddy road. “Are you all right?” the rider asked the face of the man in the road. “I’m doing fine,” replied the face, “but I’m worried about the horse I’m riding.” The implication, of course was that the animal was under the man, buried deep in the mud .
In December 1773, John Rowe wrote in his diary:
Dec 26. Exceeding windy & stormy – it Blown down many Turrets & done Damage among the Shipping at Long Wharff & Tillstons & Blown off the Tiles from my house.
Many New England diaries include weather notations as a matter of course, but in this diary either Mr. Rowe did not include weather notes, or the editor took them out. That this notation made it into the edition published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1903, makes it doubly interesting.
Oona had walked to the Common to watch the sun set over the marshes of the Back Bay. The walk back over Fort Hill was made treacherous and plodding by a harsh storm that started just as she turned toward home. She pushed back the hood of her cloak so she could see against the driving sleet. She was happy for the warm fisherman’s cap and sweater Jason had left, the thick lanolin soaked wool was warm and waterproof against the cold and wet. She lifted her face to the stinging ice and steadily increasing gusts, loving the howling wind and the energy of the storm. Hours later, alone in her room after the long day, she looked out the attic window, the wind had picked up and was roaring now. The reflected light from the thick clouds and white ground showed that ice had begun to stick and accumulate on every tree limb, roof, and mast.
The Nor’easter raged all night and all of the next day. It was Sunday, but no one ventured out for church. The ground was a solid sheet of ice, too treacherous for horses’ hooves, or a walker on anything but the most important errand. With each gust of wind, another heavy, ice coated limb crashed to the ground, making the world even more treacherous. Someday, Oona thought while staring out the window, when the sun came out again, this dull gray world will be changed by the ice, snow and freezing rain into a shiny, sparkling otherworld.
And so it was Monday morning that people emerged from their hearths to get on with their week. Frozen mud and brick walks, coated with a day’s worth of accumulated ice greeted them. Oona, like other brave souls ready to face such a day, held tight to her stout walking stick as she maneuvered through town. Like everyone she stepped gingerly, but it was the sight overhead that captivated her. The clouds had cleared away for bright winter light that caught the ice on every surface and brought it to an unearthly life. Nothing looked as it had before. Things like tree limbs, window shutters, shop and tavern signs – glittered in the bright light, moved unnaturally in the wind, broke loose from their anchors and simply shattered when they hit the ground. As the morning progressed and no heat could be coaxed from the sun to melt the layers of accumulated ice, a new wind arrived from the harsh north. Gusts from this frigid wind took the ice covered trees and ships’ masts and snapped them like twigs.
Oona headed home with bread, eggs and stew beef for dinner. She was pleased to have made it home and not slipped and fallen on Mrs. Channings fresh eggs. Back in the warm kitchen on Oliver Street, she put down her bundles and pulled off her cloak and warm undergarments. “Mrs. Prince, it’s bad down at the harbor. Masts broken, ships on their sides. I didn’t see the Catherine, but I don’t see how she could’a come through with nothing. Leastways, not completely. None of them did.”
“Don’t tell the master.”
“Don’t tell? Why not?”
“If he goes out now and gets hurt on a fall, mistress will blame you. I think she is quite angry enough over Peter Church.”
“Really? Did something new happen?”
Mrs. Prince poured two cups of chocolate and sat Oona down for a chat. Nothing had happened. But there was no reason to upset Anne Goodiel, or make Matthew run out before the streets were cleared. The cook was absolutely right.