Knowing the Cold


I awake on these single digit mornings in this century-old house and don my winter-morning uniform, grumbling in the cold. Long johns, wool socks, heavy sweats, two shirts and a bathrobe. The house won’t hold heat to keep it more than 60 degrees inside when it’s 3 outside and the wind–even high over the ridges above us and not down where we live–still sucks the warmth through every unsealed joint and chink out into the night air.

What must it have been like a hundred years ago sitting on the side of a bed at 4 a.m. in this very room, no insulation in walls or attic whatsoever, thin rugs rippling on the floor as the wind blew through the stacked-rock foundation? The fireplaces–three of them–would have sucked more heat out than the dying morning embers added. It would have been well down into the 40s most likely. I’m sure you could see your breath while donning what clothes you might have had to bring some feeling back into cold feet and hands.

There were still coals left in the stove this morning; I’m making a point to select the high-heat wood from the stack, saving the all-night logs for just before bed, so rekindling will be easy the next morning without using up too much of the stuff that has to be split from the bigger pieces. My knee injury from a week ago today still hinders me from full duty at the woodpile.

The usual workday duty of scraping Ann’s windshield was a pleasant obligation today, the crescent moon’s dark 90% a visible shadow, a bright Venus (I’m thinking) not so far off to the east, both just above the treeline from the house, just below it as I stood there in the dark scraping frost. What a wonderful world. I should not have read the morning news first thing. Bad habit.

The creek is making that muffled winter sound whimpering from under the ice; wind in trees like reeds whistles away to the southeast. And I had thoughts of spring.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Kind of reminds me of winter at my grandparents…grandpa wouldn’t leave the stove burning at night (gas not wood). So when you woke up you stayed under the covers until he got up and re-lit the stove. Only then did you run as fast as you could to toast your bottom in front of the flames…

    Stay warm…

  2. I love that icy blu photo. I enjoy the bundled up brrrrr of winter, while it last. Some of my fondest memories are of being huddled near the wood stove, toasting one side at a time.

    It would be interesting to learn more about the people who lived in your house a 100 years ago. You must feel a special connection to them.

  3. I only recently figured out that that’s why the characters in Twas the Night Before Christmas wore caps. These are the nights I sleep with one and dress in front of the woodstove in the morning.

    I hear ya.

  4. Nicely written. My morning begins the same way, and you’ve really captured the feel of it, the images of winter mornings for us woodstove users. I’ve got some quilted ski pants that are invaluable in mustering up my courage to get up in a cold house and get things going. Our creek is frozen too, and that brings a stillness to the world that we experience only at this time of year, a fitting compliment to the muted tones of the woods. I’ll go out to the garden this afternoon and uncover my spinach and kale and see if they survived these cold nights.

  5. Gorgeous photo. I found your site by surfing around for information about the place where my ancestors settled about 200 years ago. I’ve never had the opportunity to travel there, and so far, your blog is the next-best thing.

    Your writing delights and your photos enchant.