Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Sy Montgomery: Ice Storm

We got off easy this time.

During the snow, floods, rain and high winds that cut off power for 300,000 New Hampshire homes last week, at our house we only lost electricity for parts of two days.

Others weren’t so lucky. As this week began, there were still thousands of folks around the state with no power, including dozens of our neighbors here in Hancock.

The moment the lights went out, I’m sure we all had the same thought: we remembered the ice storm of December 2008. Last winter, a massive ice storm knocked out power for 1.7 million customers throughout New England and upstate New York. Nearly a week later, 100,000 people were still without electricity.

We were among them.

For six days, we had no electric lights. No furnace. No running water. No showers. No email. No TV, no computer, no radio, no CD player. No flush toilets.

And yet, I remember those days with a surprising fondness.

The night of the storm, my husband and border collie and I went to sleep to the ticking, clicking sound of rain turning to ice. Hours later, we woke in the blackness to the sounds of explosions: Trees snapping, living wood cracking, loud as lightening, heavy limbs pounding the frozen ground. As a child and young adult, I had always loved the sound of a storm. But now all I could think was: our silver maple. Our tamerack. Our lilacs. Our apple trees. God spare them!

Trees glazed with ice. Photo by Steve Pope.

In the morning, the world glittered with ice and smelled of pine tar. The white-satin ground was littered with branches and limbs. About one-eighth of the crown of our century-old silver maple–the tree beneath which we have enjoyed hundreds of summer meals at the picnic table, the place we most love to sit and watch our flock of hens, and once the best remote viewing spot for our pig, Christopher Hogwood, on his Pig Plateau–now was strewn over about half an acre of our land. Half of one of the two ancient apple trees in our fenced field had broken off.

But otherwise, thankfully, our trees and our home were intact. Although, of course, we were without electricity.

Cleaning up the downed limbs of our beloved, injured maple was sad and exhausting. We did it immediately because we couldn’t stand to look at it. By afternoon we were done. And we then were free to set about the business of living as humans have for most of our existence: Staying warm. Finding water. Cooking food.

About one-eighth of the crown of our beloved Silver Maple fell down. Photo by Howard Mansfield

Because we had known the storm was coming, we had been somewhat prepared. Howard was a Boy Scout; I have spent many weeks camping, everywhere from the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi for a book on snow leopards, to the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea working with tree kangaroos. So the night before, Howard had sensibly readied our flashlights, batteries and candles. I had a reasonable stock of food in the pantry, and because I usually shop on Saturday and the storm happened on a Friday night, thankfully the fridge wasn’t full of food that would melt down without electricity or freeze solid in an ice chest outside. Before the well pump went out, I had filled the bathtub with water, and stationed buckets of water in the upstairs bathroom and by the stove in the kitchen. We had brought wood in for the woodstove in the living room. And happily our 1930s oven and cookstove runs on propane.

Still, living without electricity was a lot of work. After the weekend ended, still with no lights, we began to realize the power outage could last for quite some time. We settled into a new rhythm for our days.

Here’s what we did: First thing in the morning, stir the coals and feed the woodstove. Light candles in the kitchen by which to make breakfast. Eat by the warmth of the woodstove. Warm water on the stove with which to wash dishes. Bring in wood from the woodpile. Our neighbors, Jarvis and Bobbie Coffin, had a generator, so they let us bring buckets to their house which we’d haul home full of water for drinking and minimal washing. I did this several times a day. In between, we’d feed the stove, bring in more wood, cook more food, clean up.

And here’s what we didn’t do: We didn’t send or open any email. We couldn’t. Howard has a laptop, and he kept trying to find a place he could get on line. In six days, he never found one. Our server was out. I don’t have a laptop, so despite the pressing deadline for BIRDOLOGY, I couldn’t work on my book. All of the chapters in progress were imprisoned in my computer. My home office wasn’t much use. It was the darkest and coldest room in the house. To read, I either had to sit by the window in the living room when the sun came out, or read by candlelight. We didn’t do much of that, because we didn’t want to use up our flashlight batteries. After all, we didn’t know how long we’d need them, and we learned from neighbors that batteries in the few stores that were open were in short supply.

So I pretty much gave up on “work” as I had known it.

And this was a huge relief.

As an author, the stress of my job isn’t in the deadlines or the research (I love the expeditions) or dealing with editors or book tours. It isn’t even that stressful when you get stranded without a translator in a tiger reserve, or when the subject of three of your chapters completely stands you up at her research site in Africa. The stress of being an author is that, no matter how long or hard you work on your book, it will never be perfect.

This is not an issue when bringing in wood and hauling water.

Because of the ice storm, I was able to abandoned myself to a different kind of work now.

Part of my new job was making sure everyone was all right. Catty-cornered across the street live the Garands, a couple nearing their 90s. Were they OK? I walked over there to discover they were just about to come over to our house to ask the same question of us. They were just fine. They had heated their house and cooked on their big old woodstove for half a century. The house was toasty warm. And because they still had a working hand pump for their well, they had running water when we, with our modern electrical well pump, did not.

In this little town of 1,800 citizens, just about everybody had the same idea. Eighty year old Mary Garland, who lives alone just off Main Street, walked to all her friends’ houses to see if anyone needed anything. Folks with generators offered their homes to friends and neighbors. Come stay! Come use our electricity! Come take a hot shower! Howard took one friend up on her offer and when he went over there found four others waiting in line.

I baked a lot of treats that week. As long as I was baking something, the kitchen was warm; the stove is metal and heats up the whole room. I made hot biscuits for breakfast. I made cookies almost every day. I brought them to the post office, where the staff sat in the cold and the dark day after day even though the mail trucks weren’t coming or leaving. I brought them to our public works department, the guys plowing the roads. When the frozen blueberries I had stored outside in the ice chest threatened to melt, I made blueberry pies. Since it was near Christmas, when my friend Joni Praded and I usually get together to make her mother’s Greek baklava recipe for all our friends, she drove to Hancock from Kensington and, thanks to our propane stove, we made trays and trays of it. We mailed some to my literary agent in New York City, who was impressed we’d made it without electric lights or running water she dubbed it “Survivalist Baklava.”

We spent lots of time visiting with neighbors. (Sally, our gregarious border collie, loved this, too.) Folks would regularly meet in the streets to survey the tree lying on the power line on Antrim Road, to speculate on when the power was coming back, and debate which was better for flushing the toilet: dump the water into the bowl, or into the tank? We visited with Bobbie and Jarvis several times a day, every time I went over to get water. Our friends, Dick and Eleanor Amidon, had scheduled their annual Christmas party shortly after the ice storm, and since they had no way of calling it off (their phone was a plug-in type that didn’t work), they held it anyway–by candlelight, and with every woodstove and fireplace in their spacious home blazing. Because a downed tree blocked their road, a lot of us walked over there by flashlight, clutching a potluck contribution as hand-warmers. It was the best party the Amidons ever gave. Howard and I would have stayed longer–but we had to get home to feed the woodstove.

A downed pine blocked the route to the Amidon’s party. Photo by Howard Mansfield

We spent a lot of time by the woodstove. Before the storm, the chance to linger in front of the fire had been a luxury we reserved for when we had guests, or on the rare “reading holiday” we might proclaim once or twice a year, when we would spend an entire evening–once, a whole day– reading for pleasure by the fire. But now, the fire was like a living creature that we tended, depended upon and enjoyed. Our woodstove has a glass panel in front so you can see the fire, and in the evening, after dinner, since we couldn’t work, and it was too dark to read, we would sit on the couch in front of the fire, enjoying the warmth and watching the flames.

We also spent a lot of time outside. Our dog Sally loved this. I was actually warmer walking her or gathering wood or hauling water than I was most of the time inside. The ice made things slippery, but it was gorgeous. At night, during the time we would normally be finishing up work at the computer or checking emails, Sally and Howard and I would sometimes take a walk. The full moon came that week, and as its light spread itself over the icy landscape, it was magical.

One night we didn’t make it. The night was gorgeous, and it wasn’t terribly cold. But we couldn’t leave. We could not take our eyes off the fire. Inside the box of our woodstove was an aurora borealis. One of the logs began throwing off blue and green and orange flames. Why it did this we didn’t know. What combination of gasses trapped in that log produced such a display? It was as if all the sunlight that tree had absorbed during its life was being released in one great display, for us alone, for that hour of that night only. We were spellbound. To this day, having seen so many wonders all over the world, the light from thatlog remains one of the most beautiful and exciting sights of my life.

It wasn’t long after the Night of the Magic Log that the lights went back on. Our friends on Main Street got theirs back first. Then the Aponoviches, two miles away, at whose house we had spent part of the previous day, taking luxurious showers. And then us. We were ecstatic. Howard’s email revealed that he had sold a book he had finished writing earlier, TURN AND JUMP, to a publisher Down East in Camden, Maine. The lights revealed the house was filthy with tracked-in mud and spilled candle wax and sticky with pine tar. I set about cleaning with vacuum and blessed hot running water.

After those six days without power, we had learned our lesson. We finally bought a small, gas-powered generator.

We tried it out for the first time last week, after the second power outage. But first, Howard started a fire in the woodstove.  I lit the candles in the kitchen and melted snow on the gas stove for our morning tea. After breakfast, Howard wheeled the generator outside, hooked it up, and turned the ignition. It started right up. On went the lights and the well pump and the furnace.

I was glad.

But I was almost sorry too.

How to Make Biochar

Doing some spring cleaning around your property? By making biochar from brush and other hard-to-compost organic material, you can improve soil—it enhances nutrient availability and also enables soil to retain nutrients longer. This excerpt from The New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume 3, explains how to get started. To make biochar right in your garden, start by […] Read More

The 10 Steps that Establish Your Baby’s Microbiome

Research is emerging almost daily on the role of the microbiome in human health. But how do we acquire this mysterious community of microbes and more importantly how do we make sure the good bacteria outnumber the bad? According to a new book by Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford, Your Baby’s Microbiome, it all starts […] Read More

Prepare! Keep a Grab-n-Go Survival Kit Handy

Are you prepared in the event of a sudden emergency? Blizzard, earthquake, insurrection after the inauguration? We know a lot of people are wondering what’s coming next in the US, as well as the world, given terrorism, politics, and global warming, among other threats. In this excerpt from When Technology Fails, a popular book on […] Read More

Yes, America We Can Make It … Really

Uncertainty got you down? The political world may seem like it’s crumbling around us, but this we know: We can make it, America. Literally, we can make things. Houses. Gardens. Food. Below we’ve selected some of our classic how-to and DIY books (and some new favorites) to help you sustain your self, family, and community. […] Read More

Chelsea Green on Instagram: Our Most Popular Photos of 2016

What a year for Chelsea Green on Instagram! We began the year with 500 followers and are now fast approaching 4,000 photo-loving brewers, gardeners, cheesemakers, permaculturists, foodies, seed-savers, homesteaders, foragers, and more. Our most popular posts of 2016 say a lot about what makes you happy: mushrooms, innovative garden designs and techniques, tiny cabins, and […] Read More