Rainstorms, sunshine, melting ice…the signs of January thaw have settled in this week. I recently became fascinated by this phenomenon as I was working on our Perspectives on Place column for The Columbia Paper (forthcoming this week). It was all set to be a wintry reverie on Januaries past, but as soon as I started looking back over historical accounts of Januaries in Columbia County, I realized that the ‘wintry’ weather was often interrupted by warm spells, sometimes even noted as the “January thaw”.
In the diary of John Cowper Powys, local author and Harlemville resident in the 1930s, there are especially rich descriptions of these thawing days of January, including a warm spell lasting nearly half the month in 1932, and an early January day in 1934 when the temperature rose 60 degrees F, from 20 below to 40 above. In the midst of our recent 50 degree F temperature swing, I set off up the road to Powys’ house, to look at a melting landscape through the double lens of a digital camera and diary descriptions written some 80 years ago (excerpted below).
Use of excerpts from John Cowper Powys’ diary is made possible with special thanks to The Powys Society.
Rushing Streams and Ice Floes
Saturday, January 9th, 1932
It is still Warm & wet. Albert told me that with a pole he had cleared our bridge of Debris that might have caused its overthrow in the wild rush of water after heavy rain & melting snow. Albert had started working in the garden for the T.T. [Powys’ nickname for his partner Phyllis Playter].
Thursday, January 25th, 1934
All is thawing! Then I went to Prometheus Stone … could see his footstool with the water clear of ice rushing over it. But I actually crossed the river our own river near that high bank…Huge floes of thick ice were there under [where] the water ran.
Icy Puddles and Green Grass
Monday, January 18th, 1931
But it is another PERFECT DAY. When I came down the sun was half-risen over the ridge. So warm was it that I opened the front door and kept it open wide all morning and we had breakfast with it wide open – think of that, on Jan 18….There has been a faint hoar-frost and some of the puddles had a little ice on them & patches of grass had a little rime on it – very little.
Thursday, January 14th, 1932
Another Unique Day – Warmer Still…. We all sat in the wall & the T.T. took photos…The grass by the edge of the Rock bed & Round Bed is quite green not the usual dead winter grass. And big blue-bottle flies go humming past your ears like Summer & the Hellebore bud under the Stump has come out…& wonderful white flower. The T.T. brought out deck chair for me to sit & write on Porch.
[Conrad pointed out that in a previous blog post we have a photo (the third one down) of Powys and Playter sitting on the stone wall in front of their house – might this have been taken on this balmy January day when photos were being taken?]
Looking Out at the Orchard
Tuesday, January 26th, 1932
Back in my own orchard – on the mossy turf by our gate – I gazed through the warm spring-like sunshine at the 4 cows coming slowly and gravely forth.
Wednesday, January 27th, 1932
…looking out at the rain falling against the Pump, against the apple-tree and I looked at the wide expanse of the valley the higher fields light straw coloured dead grass and the Lower fields where innumerable stalks & seeds of dead flowers are a remarkable reddish-colour, brownish-reddish, like the bark of elm trees gets when it has been deluged by the rain for many hours.
Wednesday, January 4th, 1933
A Perfect Spring Day. O lovely Day! O woeful day! Down at 7.35. Wind South-East. Warm sunshine – everything golden. A flock of blackbirds (starlings Albert calls them) on the Apple-tree, on the cherry-tree – on the Field Hickory Tree – tumbling and tossing in massed patterns to the ground & back & making a twittering very sweet…. a Linos song [?] - like elfin violins.
Tuesday, January 20th, 1931
Took the Black [his dog] over bridge and by river and up hill. The yellow stalks were shining gold and on each were many diamonds of melting ice. I counted 4 on an upright grass on its stalk and 5 on a horizontal grass bent down by age.
Friday, January 19th, 1934
It is so warm so warm, so warm … I had only time to get to the Spinny but the brown-reddish Twigs against the blue-grey Ridge – aye! but the Ridge was a lovely grey-blue & so insubstantial & poetical – I gazed at Phudd too & rather dodged my Rigmarole in consequence.
Saturday, January 6th, 1934
…took the Old [same dog] to the Battlefield [nickname for a local field] & walked over it. It was pure gold – what wondrous tints the dead grass gives to these taw[n]y leonine fields.
Misty, Wild Hills
Sunday, January 4th, 1931
Got up at 9.15 very late – all foggy – Summit of Phudd invisible….The far ridges invisible. All thawing….The grass & earth were visible again because of the Thaw.
Tuesday, January 12th, 1931
It is a beautiful day. It is warm. It is misty sunshine. It is like spring. It almost has the smell of Violets. The hills of the Ridges are all misty & little patches of blue keep coming in the sky.
Thursday, January 14th, 1932
It is – it is – incredibly warm 0 warm lovely sunshine – warm as May – warmer than April – O and the heavenly indescribable scents that came out of the earth – the muddy wet drenched earth. Yesterday when I lay my back to a stone fence on the top of the One-Tree Hill above the Fir Tree House I had an ecstasy of pleasure at the deep deep deep beautiful lonely wildness of Columbia County.
What signs of thaw or wild beauty do you see in this January landscape?