Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Snowed in

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Snow cellar

Usually reserved for Norway, Finland or New England, the opportunity to become snowbound happened here Valentine’s Day. Snow brings out the poets and story tellers. Ralph Waldo Emerson penned “The Snow Storm” in 1856. In a similar turn of events, the storm put a halt to people’s activities and they had to retreat indoors. During the night nature transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. The next morning strange and unusual snow formations were bathed in the first rays of sunlight.

John Greenleaf Whittier composed a long poem titled “Snow-bound: A Winter Idyl” published in 1866. It was based on fireside chats by family members cooped together for three days. Hunting, fishing and eating with Native Americans, Quakers looking for inspiration, knowledge from nature and clouds, hearing meaning in songs and sounds of birds and animals were all discussed. The poem relives an earlier time being pushed aside by modern ideas and technology.

The common themes were snow and cold and rolling power blackouts. The temperature on Feb. 16 plummeted to a minus 14. The electricity wavered for a few hours before disappearing. During the next hour, each greenhouse temperature dropped over 10 degrees. The lemonary fell to 34 degrees so the small propane heater was brought into action. The larger greenhouse hovered in the mid-30s. While my partner was tending to the embryonic fire in the insert, I discovered the cold-water faucet in the back bathroom was frozen. Couldn’t squeeze out one drop of water. After electricity came back on, a small space heater was set up under the sink and the warm air soon thawed the pipe. The greenhouse temps rose to the low 50s. The fireplace roared into action, and the constant supply of little logs that fed it warmed much of the house. Each morning a new fire was rekindled. The insert was put to good use for days.

1899 was the last time it was this cold in OKC. For us in the south, super cold and snow are mysterious, unknowns, uncommon weather phenomena. Warnings of impassable roads prompted us to stock up on perishable foods. Sacks of oranges and apples were stored in the unheated back closet, potatoes in the hall closet, and two loaves of bread stowed away in the ice chest on the front porch. Out came the Dutch oven to cook a large pot of veggie soup fortified with short beef ribs.

Snow pond

The snow of the first storm was dry, powdery and accumulated to 4.5 inches. It blew off high surfaces and piled up into drifts along fences and in dips. Few traveled on the precarious roads besides four-wheel drives with high clearance and cattle trucks hauling hay balls….and the DoorDash guy who came bringing a sack of food to our house. The one and only person who had braved driving on our road that day! We never ordered restaurant delivery. Phone rang. Our son on the east coast gave us a “heads up, your lunch is on its way.” It was a cool surprise… until he told us he thought, after he placed the order for his lunch, the map looked odd. Turned out it was a map where we lived, not him. His lunch was great: cheese dip, chips, guacamole, quesadillas.

The second winter snow storm gently fell through the night as snow rain—billions of tiny snowflakes packing together until they topped 3.5 inches. The temps were not quite as frigid and the winds almost calm.

The next day sunlight came and went in below freezing temps. The icicles on the roof started re-melting. They don’t warn you about the potential for avalanches from metal roofs. No St. Bernard with a keg of hot chocolate was around when the first wave slid off the south side of the roof with a whooshing sound and dumped itself on the hollies and walkway. At least it was fluffy. The snow shovel did a nice job of opening the snow path. The second avalanche created a wall of snow just outside the sunporch. The shrubs were now embedded in snow.

Beautiful white dry snow may weigh 7 pounds per cubic foot, but over 20 pounds if wet or icy. A metal roof can support 2 feet of fresh snow or one foot of compacted fluff. Ideally the roof should be low-pitched, not an 8 inch slope every 12 inches like ours. The six-plus inches of snow on our roof probably tipped the scale at 4,500 pounds! If we just had snow guards or a snow fence like they do in northern latitudes. I knocked the icicles off the roof over the front door. At least we wouldn’t be impaled by frozen spears.

Snowman joy

The hollies are a favorite hangout for birds, but no birds were there during the avalanches. Heck no. They’ve been living at the feeders the past two weeks and have consumed or redistributed 200 pounds of bird seed. I counted the birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count, held Feb. 12-15, 2021 (supported by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society). During the two hour counting stint, the red-winged blackbirds decided to descend in mass. I had to guesstimate at 100 with over 20 cowbirds thrown in. Northern Cardinals numbered 40, but we counted over 70 that evening. Lots of juncos, pine siskins, goldfinches, house finches and others were in attendance. I have a standing flock of purple finches, somewhat uncommon in our area. Several generations have come and gone through the years. The harsh winter weather impacted birds, wildlife and calves now being born. Every time I walked outdoors, the only things I saw blowing across the snow were small downy feathers. What a week.

Meteorologists rejoiced over the arrival of “The Great Thaw.” The snow formed a hard crunchy crust and footprints turned into icy patches as the snow melted. Took six days before the snow became history, except for a few roadside pyramids.

Our friend in England quipped he felt snow belonged only on Christmas cards. I loved the snow. The cold, on the other hand…..is that frostbite?

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.