Of Earth’s four seasons, Iowa wears them all. Each has its own look, its own color, its own mood; and each its own job. Winter drives the birds south and the people indoors and the renewal of spring invites them back. Summer’s heat grows the corn and the crisp days of fall prompt every long-lived being to prepare to survive winter.
Just a month in, this winter is deep. The windows and wood stove wage war for temperature territory and we live in the middle of their battlefield. Because the windows have the upper hand I resort to down vests and soft blankets to keep warm. One step out the front door is enough for the wind to whisk away the microclimate of warmth I produce for myself and I know that without shelter I would perish.
Winter was weeks away when our pond froze for the year. My son stalked it daily to assess its progress toward becoming a skating rink. It snowed before it reached the required four inches and he worried over what the snow would do to the quality of the ice. Within days it achieved its depth and as he shoveled with his grandfather and little sister they discovered perfectly preserved but lifeless specimens of bass and carp, bluegill and catfish suspended under clear, black ice.
Our fish didn’t survive into the first week of official winter. It wasn’t the cold that killed them. It was the snow and the seasons which came before. Fish breathe oxygen. When lakes and ponds freeze over, oxygen gets trapped below the surface. Our pond is small, three-quarters of an acre, and while there may not be enough trapped oxygen for the fish to survive whole winter, when the sun penetrates the ice it activates the plant material at the bottom to release oxygen so the fish get what they need to breathe. Snow sitting on the surface is a problem: it blocks the sun and prevents it from carrying out its work.
A half-week of sun-deprivation was more than our fish could tolerate. They should have been able to hold on longer, but the seasons leading up to winter were tough. Fall was dry. Summer was dry. Spring? I don’t even remember. The pond was low and stagnant; its water couldn’t sustain them.
This winter we’ll skate over a scene from Ice Age and lament the loss of our fish. My husband will research ways to aerate the pond and search for a breed of trout suited to Iowa. We’ll anticipate the return of the frogs’ symphony, silenced in recent years by the fish which crowded them out or consumed them. Spring’s thaw will call raccoons and other critters to the pond; their quest to survive will rid it of the remnants of death.
For now we’re in deep winter. The longest months are pages yet to be turned on the calendar and fall’s gathering has worn thin. The news informs us of a propane shortage. Our woodpile has dwindled below where it was when we lit last year’s final fire and winter’s question hangs in the chilled air: Will what I gathered be enough to last?
Spring will come. The lights in the heavens are not just to separate night from day; they are signs for seasons and days and years. The calendar moves ever on and spring is on its way. Some years I emerge from a long season of wintering with the sense that I’ve barely survived it. This isn’t one of those years; I’m faring better than the woodpile. Still, when spring arrives, I’ll be ready.
And you? How are you wintering?