For so long, bare ground kept us thinking that it was yet fall. Add the occasional warm day or two and the illusion was complete. But now with cold settled in and snow on the ground, winter has truly become reality.

Out in RFD Maine, winter routines differ greatly from those of spring, summer and fall. First and foremost, the need to maintain a comfortable inside temperature becomes paramount. For some, that requires nothing more than turning the dial on a thermostat. But for others, the woodstove becomes a stern taskmaster, a monster made of black iron or steel with its cavernous mouth demanding to be fed with precise regularity.

It’s so easy in summer to look back upon winter days and feeding the woodstove. It doesn’t seem like a tough chore, carrying several armloads of wood inside each day. But now, with snow and often brutal, cold winds, the task becomes something to dread. Procrastination often gets the better of me and reluctant to leave the artificial comfort of the house, I wait until the last stick of wood goes into the ever-hungry stove before venturing outside to the woodshed for another load.

Laundry project

Doing laundry takes more time and effort now than in warmer weather. Many in RFD Maine don’t own a clothes dryer, preferring the more tedious but oh-so-fresh scent and feel of air-dried clothes. But now, the clothesline becomes useless. Clothes left outside to dry quickly freeze and if not brought inside, will remain that way until spring. This is when we begin drying clothes inside.

Most everyone uses a collapsible wooden drying rack. These come in many forms, some rather small, others huge, rambling and capable of holding all and everything the washing machine can throw at it.

So now, instead of hauling fresh, wet laundry out to hang on the line, we must carefully drape each sock, tee-shirt and towel on the rack, being careful to use just a minimal amount of space in order to allow for more laundry and at the same time, providing for ample air circulation.

Sometimes laundry dried on a rack becomes quite stiff. My rack sits in the same room as my woodstove and clothes dried in a warmer environment often become as rigid as so many sheets of plywood. A few shakes removes the worst of the stiffness.

Sometimes I’ll have more to wash than will fit on the drying rack, so I enlist the help of my bathroom shower. An adjustable metal rod, set atop the shower stall allows for about a dozen shirts. But the shirts need to be placed on hangers for the best use of available space. Slacks and jeans must be spread out in order to dry. These I hang up last by draping them over the top of the stall.

So what would take about 45 minutes in summer takes nearly twice as long in winter. But I always congratulate myself on the money saved by not using an electric clothes drier. Also, the steamy-wet clothes add much-needed moisture to the inside air, so all in all, it’s not a bad deal.

Soups and stews

For all the drawbacks of using a woodstove  dust, ashes, wood bits and chips on the floor, the old woodburner offers something not available in summer. It, running at a relatively constant temperature, makes a perfect vehicle for hours-long simmering of soups and stews. Electric slow-cookers are fine, but they just don’t perform the same as a woodstove. And, of course, the woodstove requires no electricity, perfect for times of power outages.

As a bonus, whereas electric slow-cookers require a pressure seal on the lid in order to maintain temperature (this forms from liquid condensing on the lid), food cooked on a woodstove can be left to simmer with the top slightly askew, allowing that delicious aroma to waft about. And for those who want a little bit more in the way of added fragrance, a dash of cinnamon or ground cloves, sprinkled on the top of the stove, makes a far more homey and clean fragrance than anything we could buy in a spray can.

Besides soup, stew and chili, we can also cook potatoes inside the woodstove. Just wrap the spuds up in two layers of aluminum foil to prevent scorching and drop on the coals. Timing isn’t critical, either, because, being sealed in foil, they won’t overcook.

Finally, my frugal Scottish blood tells me that it pays to take advantage of the free hot water offered by the woodstove. To that end, I keep a large, enamelware kettle full of water on the stove at all times. This provides more than enough hot water to wash a dishpan full of dishes.

In the end, the benefits of heating with wood, if they don’t outweigh the drawbacks, certainly make it a break-even deal.

Smooth sailing

What’s the difference between a gravel road or driveway in winter and then again in summer? In winter, snow packs into potholes and freezes, creating a relatively smooth surface. As long as a warm spell and accompanying rain doesn’t destroy the setup, we have smooth sailing in winter on gravel roads.

And while the main roads get coated with salt and sand after a snowstorm, something that transforms the road back to its old, bumpy self, our driveways remain in pristine condition until spring. My driveway is pretty long and the snowplow only helps to pack down the snow. But disliking the effects of salt, I allow my driveway to remain au-natural for the winter. It’s slippery at first, but in time, dust and dirt from car tires puts down just enough of a film to make for safe traveling. In fact, my driveway and any other gravel drive, for that matter, is far smoother and nicer in winter than in summer.

Of course winter, with its ice and snow, dictates that we walk more gingerly, taking pains as to how we place one foot in front of another. More than once I’ve slipped on ice on my driveway and found myself sitting on the ground, wondering what happened. I’m getting too old for those kinds of things, I think, which means being more careful about slippery footing.

Clear skies

Someone once wrote that it was a great injustice that the clearest nighttime skies occur in winter when it is so very cold. And cold it is, but that doesn’t stop some of us from setting up our telescopes and marveling at the Great Orion Nebula and other wintertime treasures of the night sky.

Temperatures around zero dictate only brief viewing sessions, intermixed with forays inside to get warm. Indeed, it was once so cold that the warmth from my eyeball caused condensation on my telescope eyepiece.

But cold or not, we here in Maine have some of the clearest, most pristine skies anywhere in the east. And while it takes determination to brave the cold, stargazing now is just another one of those bitter-sweet things that accompany winter in RFD Maine.