Column: Holding on to winter


Last Monday we got an extra day of winter thanks to leap year, but except for that weekend when pipes froze all over the Island, our water heater had a psychotic break, and our dog’s feet stuck to the ground during her walks, it hasn’t been that bad.

There is still plenty of enjoyment left to wring out of this season. For one thing, I’d like to have more time with my dog lying by the blazing hearth. This is really the whole point of having a fireplace, not to mention a dog.

My family used to have a bassett hound named Luther who slept so soundly by the fire that he didn’t notice when an ember popped out and landed on his forehead. My mother saw a wisp of smoke rising from Luther’s dome-shaped head and leapt off the couch, slapping at him with both hands in an attempt to smother the ember.

Luther awoke to find himself on fire and being beaten about the head, but fortunately he was a very forgiving dog. Except for a tiny round circle of singed fur on the top of his head, he escaped from winter unscathed. And so will we.

Going to a restaurant here in the winter is like going to the home of an interesting friend who is both a really good cook and someone you haven’t seen in a while. On a Friday night at Red Maple in the Heights, a waiter in the middle of her first Shelter Island winter told me that this has been her favorite time of year because she finally has time to meet local people who won’t come in the summer because they are too busy.

I realized that I am one of those people.

At the Shelter Island Tavern, my husband and I ate at the bar on a recent frigid night watching the Knicks on the screen over the bar, until we were engrossed in a story the bartender told us about working at a Mexican joint on the Upper East Side where the Yankees infield used to come in to kick back.

“The only thing A-Rod wanted to do was watch baseball on TV,” he said.

There has been plenty of entertainment this winter. Right now, I’m in the middle of officiating a beauty pageant, and the contestants are the four large deciduous trees visible from my east-facing window. I have to decide which one has the most beautiful spread of bare branches against the sky.

Each has its charms; one has very dark bark that stands out like an enormous wrought iron lawn decoration, one is perfectly symmetrical, one fills up half the visible sky, and the fourth is covered with rows of stubby buds that are already starting to fatten. I must hand down my decision in this contest soon or that tree will be disqualified for blooming.

The fact that on February 2 a large Pennsylvania-based rodent emerged from its burrow to find cloudy skies is offered as evidence that spring is right around the corner. On February 16, my husband reported that most of the compacted snow covering our yard in icy slabs had melted and washed away, a clear portent of spring (and lawn repair).

Then a neighbor pointed out that she could hear birds singing — proof either of spring, or an inner-ear disturbance.

I’ve also heard that there is an “earthy smell” coming from the grass, there are a lot of rabbits around and “love is in the air.” I’m suspicious of these touchy-feely signs of spring. I prefer more data-driven predictors of the advent of mild weather than sightings of woodchucks.

An astronomical analysis of the movement of our planet around the sun shows that the spring equinox on Shelter Island will occur on Sunday, March 20 at 12:30 am.

There are other metrics of spring. For example, The Goat Index of Fecundity (TGIF) tracks live births in the Island’s (admittedly small) goat population.  Sylvester Manor farmer Julia Trunzo reported last week that “Our new kids were born Presidents’ Day morning,” and she was not talking about her own offspring, although he’s very cute, too.

Julia pointed out that goats generally mate in the fall and produce kids after a five-month gestation, so the twin girl goats are an adorable and reliable sign of spring.

But keep them away from the fireplace.