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Home Planet

Tue., Jan. 19, 2010, 9:30 a.m.

Waiting Out a Fickle Winter

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap

Special to PINCH

January 13, 2010

  Winter weather, when it doesn’t behave as it should, leaves us confused about where we stand. And this January, living in a place that by now should be deeply frosted with snow, like a layer-cake covered with heavy white icing, that is the literal truth. I have to be careful about where I put my feet.
    My small backyard in the city, a frozen, snowy, Dr. Zhivago landscape this time last year, is in this rainy El Nino year, frequently a swamp. A soggy patch of sloppy lawn and boot-sucking mud. A mess. Then, in a few days, when the temperature drops again, it becomes a frozen tundra, as hard as concrete.
     It is also a place where three hens scratch and parade in the cold drizzle.
    My young urban chickens were last spring’s peeps. Three tiny balls of fluff, warming under the heat lamp, that have grown into plump, comic, egg-producing machines.
    All summer, watching them grow leggy and brave, watching them molt and then sprout new feathers, I worried and fretted about how to keep those hens healthy and happy when the bitterest part of winter descended on us. I plotted the route the shoveled path would take from the backdoor to the henhouse. I anticipated tender combs burned by frostbite and gray days so cold the hens would be happy to stay in the coop under the warmth of the heat lamp. I bought a heat lamp. I filled the nesting box with an extra layer of hay.
    What I didn’t expect was a winter that can’t make up its mind; that drops in and then melts and retreats only to sneak in another day or two of shocking cold before going back into hiding...

    So now, instead of waiting out the deep snow that should be here, all the single ladies in my backyard happily dance in the unseasonable mud or step gingerly over the glazed icy patches. They cackle, scratching and fluttering around me for the leaves of green lettuce and pieces of ripe fruit and slices of day-old  bread I bring them each morning. They peck at roses along the fence and at the sad remains of last year’s vegetable garden, tired vines and leaves that weren’t picked-up in the fall clean-up and now droop over the raised beds.
    Those chickens don’t know how lucky they are. They don’t know that any day now the sky could throw down a frozen white blanket to cover what’s left of the grass and send them to huddle in the coop.
    So they play. They lay eggs. They dance and flap their wings and chase one another while I listen to the weather report and study the sky and keep the snow shovel handy.
    Just in case.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at


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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country.