Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Cold Start

About 35 years ago I was visiting college friends in Minneapolis in early January. On a whim, we decided to go winter camping in Grantsburg WI, just across the St Croix River from Pine City. We drove to a wooded area, showshoed about a quarter mile in to a frozen pond and set up camp. While there was a lot of brave talk while huddled around the camp stove preparing dinner, one night at 30 degrees below zero was about all the fun we could stand. Nobody slept that well and our car was so frozen that we weren't able to get it started without a jump the next morning. We considered it a moral victory that no one suffered frostbite.

I was reminded of that memory last night, sleeping at Ma'ikwe's new house over at Dancing Rabbit. Though the outdoor temperatures were far more moderate—20 degrees above zero—we were effectively indoor camping in an enclosed-though-not-yet-tight two-story house. We were sleeping on the ground floor, and the BTUs from the wood stove were merrily congregating near the second story ceiling—too far away to do us much good. My initial attempt to sleep without socks or my wool knit hat (as I would ordinarily at home, even on the coldest nights) did not work, and Ma'ikwe and I spent the night alternately warming our front back and sides next to each other under three layers of blankets. The term "bracing" only barely begins to describe the experience. Briskly walking home this morning, I actually warmed up in the course of the three-mile jaunt. The trick in cold weather is to keep moving.

Now home at Sandhill, I'm composing this blog in the relative warmth of a well-insulated house. Ma'ikwe and her 12-year-old son Jibran, are facing three months of winter in a house that cannot be easily heated. Brr.

Ma'ikwe did a terrific job to get her house from groundbreaking to enclosed in one season, yet the house is far from complete and only marginally livable at this point. Given that Ma'ikwe doesn't particularly enjoy cold weather, it's all the more impressive that she's embracing a Little House on the Prairie homesteading experience until spring. (No doubt her resolve to not repeat this pioneer reenactment next winter will keep her on task to complete construction in the coming year.)

The hardest part will be keeping her spirits from dropping with the thermometer. While some tasks aren't possible in freezing conditions—such as adding additional coats of plaster to the straw bales—there are still many things that can be done to make progress in the winter, such as mudding the drywall on the ceiling, framing interior walls, weatherstripping the doors, and making quilted curtains for the windows. Beyond that, it'll be important that Ma'ikwe stays actively involved in other efforts (such as writing, or planning her community's annual retreat in February), lest cold weather lethargy lead to depression.

Fortunately, my wife is a courageous woman, and I'm optimistic that she'll weather the challenges of winter well. And come March, she'll probably have a deeper appreciation for the warmth and promise of spring than most of us.

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