Joyful Yule to all! This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow. The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night. This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am. The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.
We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold. What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return? No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened. Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.
The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm! Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly. The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats. They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers. Angora rabbits are made for cold weather. Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty. The dogs delight in snow. They would spend hours romping in it if we let them. The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow. They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.
The feral pheasant may still be around. Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him. Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight. The pheasant has not been seen since. The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat. Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings. I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture. Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust. So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own. I’m rooting for him.
Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap. And wait for spring.
Overnight we received the first measurable snow of the winter. I’d guess it’s about 7″. The stuff really came down for a few hours. I especially like the way the heavy snowfall dampens the sound of traffic on the road running past the farm. After a while, the highway empties and the road noise of any stray slow moving vehicle is muffled. I can almost imagine we live in the country and not beside what has become, in my lifetime, a major thoroughfare.
This may look chilly, and the ground beneath is frozen, but the air temperature is nearing 32F. With a ten-day high of 38F forecast for today, it looks like the snow may be here to stay. Next week the weather prognosticators call for more snow. Several days of snow. Yesterday my husband and I worked from mid-morning till near dark to finish all the little chores that must be done before snow arrives. We sat, smugly content, and watched the white pile up. Now I look forward to a long winter’s rest disturbed only by a few barn chores, some snow plowing and the occasional jaunt outside for cold weather exercise.
Just off Route 1 in Damariscotta, Maine, where the road crosses the river, the remains of prehistoric shell piles are visible. A quiet little place named Whaleback Shell Midden State Historic Site awaits visitors on any day of the year. A five minute walk from the parking lot to the river side brings a visitor to what remains of a giant pile of mostly oyster shells left by prehistoric Mainers. The pile was created between 2200-1000 years ago. At its extreme, the mound was once up to thirty feet deep and extended over 400 feet up from the river. All these shells are the evidence of more than a thousand years of Native American feasts.
The photo above is from the State of Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands website, showing the Whaleback Midden in 1886 after mining had begun. The pile got its name from the striking resemblance to the back of a whale, probably a humpback. Once Europeans arrived in the late 1500s, the huge shell pile became a resource. Settlers ground the shell up to make lime and to create roadbeds. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, full scale mining of the site commenced. The huge pile of shells was ground up for chicken feed supplement. What remains today was preserved beneath the mining buildings.
There are still a lot of shells in the area! I picked up pieces of oyster shell and considered that the last person to touch this before me may have been a prehistoric native. When the shell pile was mined, an historian did his best to record what was discovered during excavations. The remains of fourteen humans were found and several dogs. Artifacts such as painted pottery, stone tools and weapons, and many animal bones were turned up. The natives apparently also consumed various mammals, fish and birds in addition to oysters by the canoe-load. Some of the oyster shells were over a foot long! It has been determined that most of the shellfish feasting took place in the winter and early spring.
The Damariscotta River in this area is brackish and tidal. During the midden period the river was less saline and home to what seems a massive oyster bed. Today the water has a higher salt content and no longer supports oysters. It is still a beautiful waterbody rich in aquatic life.
Directly across the river from Whaleback Midden is another huge pile of oyster shells that is untouched since the days of the native mollusk eaters. Glidden Midden (I kid you not!) is on private land and so far unsullied. The bright white of the shells sets up a blinding glare in the sunlight. Most of the pile is overgrown with trees.