The poem, Snow-Bound, is to contemporary New Englanders no longer merely a celebrated composition, but a harsh reality. During the first major storm in January, I reached for my collection of poems by John Greenleaf Whittier (which I received in the early 1940s, during ninth grade, at Whittier Junior High School, a superb public preparatory school, serving Bassick Senior High School in Bridgeport).
Whittier wrote about many of the same New England scenes that Robert Frost later dwelt upon. Both poets readily take me back in thoughts to my early grade-school days, and to my grandmother’s dairy farm in the country. Our family used to return there summers during the Great Depression.
For a small boy reared in the city (not only Bridgeport, but Manhattan, Queens and northern New Jersey, my father’s birthplace), the reality of a farm covering over 100 acres provided countless magical experiences: exploring unfamiliar paths deep in the woods; climbing birches; balancing atop mysterious stone walls; resting alongside pools with frogs, dragonflies, and turtles; watching woodchucks consume bundles of tall grass; avoiding snakes; shaking apples, peaches, or pears from trees; and accompanying dairy cows back to the barns in the late afternoon.
In between all such summertime activities, there was always time to visit the barns to check on the newest calf or to take a very quick look through the wooden door at the apparently always-angry bull – and immediately dash away. And there was also the icehouse to visit – a barn housing blocks of ice covered with sawdust, still frozen in August, although cut and stored back in January. I also remember two enormous draft horses which were led to the water pump every evening; I always stood a distance away.
And there was an old Model-T Ford, used for hauling milk cans, but always available for a boy to experiment upon.
During winter, we would always be back in Bridgeport, at least during the mid- and late- 1930s, which means that I cannot clearly recall being snowbound. Yet, in the most remote chambers of my memory, I do recall snow and severe cold on the farm. And somehow I also recall how oxen were the only answer to what could have been weeks of confinement.
Whittier, toward the close of his poem, describes the role of oxen in freeing his family:
"Next morning we wakened with the shout/ Of merry voices/ And saw the teamsters drawing near/ To break the drifted highways out… We saw the half-buried oxen go,/ Shaking the snow from heads uptost,/ Their straining nostrils white with frost…"
Whether I personally ever saw such a scene, I am not certain. But I know that a neighboring farm did own oxen, and deep in my childhood memories I somehow recollect how oxen forged a primal path in otherwise impenetrable snow drifts on the farm. Powerful tractors with plows were just around the corner, when the Depression dissipated.
Whittier’s poem closes with references to horse-drawn sleigh bells signaling the end of confinement, followed by a description of the "wise old Doctor’s" making his rounds just to make sure that everyone detained by the snow was in good health.
The world was so different then, it seems. Being snow-bound must have been difficult, but at least there was some heat, generated by fireplaces or wood-fuel stoves; and, owing to preparations for emergencies, adequate food and water. Candles served for light at night; television service was never even a problem.
What was difficult was shoveling a pathway to the barns to feed the livestock and milk the cows. But these were winter problems, ones that I hardly recall. It was the summers on the farm that I remember most of all, and the good things that happened then. One lasting memory is a root cellar, where my father temporarily kept part of his library. Because of one of the books there, I first began to think seriously (at age 5 or so, I guess) about becoming a priest, God willing. To this day, I view root cellars with a sense of prayer – and thanksgiving.
Incidentally, people often question why it is that many artists, writers, intellectuals and scholars choose to retire to small farms in the countryside. One thinks of philosopher Jacques Maritain’s apologia in his fascinating The Peasant of the Garonne (1968). To understand this book, some time spent on a farm is helpful.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.