In the bleak midwinter | Front Porch | Indy Week
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In the bleak midwinter 

The best way to mulch blueberry bushes is on your hands and knees, and that's where I've been. This is the best time for housecleaning in the blueberry patch, too, so that's why, on early winter mornings, I've tucked armfuls of pine straw around old gray trunks and stalks. The ground is cold and crusty, strands of ice still crazy-quilted with last year's leaves.

But every two feet or so, eager, deep red, fresh blueberry shoots poke through the brown loamy cover, ready for 2011. Deer have noticed them, too: Several tender clusters have been chewed down to a few inches above the ground. But my faithful sentries—our three ever-sniffing, ever-poking dogs—have noticed the deer. Maybe we'll call this the pre-game.

Spring is too many weeks away, but these tiny signs are such sweet reminders that we won't always be waking to frosty, black ice dawns. I always get a little giddy flipping through the Farmers' Almanac from the local feed and seed store. Checking the charts, I see we gained nearly 40 minutes of daylight, mostly in the evening. In January, the sun set almost a half hour later. In early February, the sun's still low, passing through the upper branches and casting dark shadows at noon. I can't wait for it to finally cross the sky above the pine forest bordering the orchard. It won't be long, either: We gain another hour of daylight in this short month.

The garden is cleared; tomato and pepper cages are piled, ready, around the fence. All is still, other than the birds feasting on the compost from the chicken coop, and, of course, the cat watching the birds.

Beside the expectant garden sits my brown-streaked truck. A survivor of many perilous runs to town and back these past two months, the truck is a veteran of driveway slip-and-slide. The blacktop that connects us to civilization looks like a preschool chalkboard each morning as neighbors roar out of their driveways and fields, spraying orange clay from their spinning back tires. This is the month when you just can't get enough traction, when your tires just can't be too big when you're trying to make it from the house to the paved state road. So while I prowl the woods looking for firewood trees, I'm also looking for convenient rock piles that can fill the potholes that appear as regularly as full moons. Our naturally curvy driveway adds a few oxbow swerves every February.

Our unbreakable yellow Sears chopping maul is wedged into a gnarly oak stump by the well house. The loyal victor in many battles with countless chunks of oddly shaped firewood, the axe just might be resting there for the next nine months—that is, if spring hurries on in.

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