A coda to my ‘Wild food and wildlife’ post of a couple of weeks ago. Last Sunday morning we discovered a little pile of wood shavings in the doorway to the lounge, where one corner of the French door had been delicately gnawed and a little patch of carpet had been grazed back to its roots. A creature, it seemed, with a taste for roughage: the contents of the pantry remained unmolested.
Ruefully, we set the trap; remembering his Gruffalo (‘The mouse saw a nut and the nut looked good’), Hapless set a plump fresh walnut as bait. And on Monday morning, there he was: our resident mouse, in an undignified sprawl beneath the trap, his pale groin exposed and his tiny legs splayed, tail in a stiff curl. A minute later he was pitched unceremoniously by Hapless into the scrub as fodder for whatever’s next up the food chain; it’s a hawk-eat-mouse world out there.
So it’s farewell, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; we’ve arrived at a season indistinguishable from winter. The temperature range today is an overnight low of minus six and a high of three, though admittedly this is the onset of what the media call ‘a wintry blast’ and is affecting the whole country. For two days we scrutinise the sleet carefully in case it can be rounded up to snow. A few fat flakes fall, enough to set the boys dancing and sliding on the deck; and now, finally, a light but steady snow is falling outside my window, indistinguishable on the ground from the thick white frost we woke up to.
The dusting of snow on the higher peaks becomes a permanent fixture, surviving even the sunny and wet days, while it still comes and goes from the closer hills. The autumn trees are now all but naked, the rows of windbreak poplars brown and skeletal along the farm roads. The hawthorn bushes lose their leaves, exposing their dense crops of berries in massed clouds of vivid crimson. Larches, passing all summer as evergreens, suddenly out themselves as late-changing deciduous and turn great patches of conifer forest a scabby yellow.
We get our first taste of the effects of the ‘inversion layer’, the layer of fog that forms above the surface of the lake and gets trapped beneath a band of sun-warmed air above. We’re told that in winter this can last for days, blanketing the entire Hawea valley in freezing cloud while the surrounding hilltops and mountains bask in sunshine. (In other weather news, Hapless upskills himself with his new ‘Bushcraft’ book, which, ironically, he reads beside me in bed at night. He learns to read weather changes in the clouds, jubilantly pointing out the first wisps of cirrhus that signal the change in weather system, and 24 hours later, the ‘hogs’ backs’ that signify imminent rain.)
My herbs have long since succumbed to frostbite, signalling the end of my flirtation with exotic cooking on a budget (the cheapest herbs at the supermarket are $7 a packet). Back to endless meat and spuds, then; I lay in a fresh bottle of HP sauce in readiness.
On frosty mornings after rain, the pegs in the peg tub freeze into a solid block of ice and have to be chipped off or thawed under the tap inside, before I peg up the washing with agonised fingers. I do laundry, drive, jog and type in a pair of the boys’ fingerless gloves; rummaging in the cavernous freezer, in which a girl could easily get lost looking for the schnitzel, requires full-finger leather ones. I work with a hot water bottle on my lap to defrost my fingers between sentences.
Showering has been becoming steadily more of an ordeal since the beginning of autumn. The chilly bathrooms are equipped with wall-mounted heaters that efficiently warm no more than the four cubic metres of the room nearest the ceiling. With the temperature in the ensuite bathroom seldom reaching double figures, the towels, even in this strangely dry climate – when some mornings the grass is bone-dry, without a drop of dew – never dry out, and need to be hung by the fire or changed every other day.
Stepping out of a tiny, claustrophobically steamy shower stall into an arctic bathroom, to be greeted more often than not with a damp, cold, wet dog-smelling towel: the disincentives to shower become greater than ever. And these days I have far too much hair, which drips freezingly down my neck until I twist it up onto the back of my head, where it stays damp for up to 14 hours. Visits to the loo are small victories in the building of Southern character; the boys have developed a system of warming the toilet seat with their trousers on before braving it with a bare bottom.
Did I mention we’re loving it? The cold and its associated rituals and privations are as exotic as the self-imposed hardships of camping. Like they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing, so getting dressed in the morning is a meticulous layering exercise, followed by the careful covering of extremities in order to leave the house.
Aside from the bathrooms, we keep the house toasty, the fire going all day, the new miniature oil heaters in the boys’ rooms finally raising the overnight temperatures to a World Health Organisation-approved minimum. My hot water bottle is my BFF, filled three times a day and nursed at my desk, on the couch and in bed.
The boys love their long johns, which they wear day and night until they need to be peeled off, stinking, for laundering. They barely seem to notice the cold, mostly because they never stop moving, and have to be nagged into fleeces and hats. These get stripped off minutes later because they get too hot scootering, skating, biking, ambushing the neighbours or whatever they’re doing (French Foreign Legion-style assault courses and boot camp drills are quite popular this week – press ups, long gasping runs, rope climbing, commando crawling and the like, preferably while being pelted with pine cones by the rest of your squad).
The school pie warmer was deployed at the start of Term 2, giving kids the option of a hot lunch: named, foil-wrapped parcels brought from home (no lunch order service when you’re in the boondocks) and subjected to several hours of the Big Ben treatment (‘it’ll be thermonuclear!’). Other kids bring toasted sandwiches, microwave pizza, baked beans, leftovers; we settle on a Friday pie routine, which the boys adore.
Hot pies, fires, hotties, snow – what’s not to love about winter?