The other night, I left my house to find our cat before the coyotes did and found my brand-new neighbor standing in our driveway, instead. Without any preamble, she gestured to the three cords of wood we had meticulously split, seasoned and stacked throughout the summer. Could she have some wood?
I blinked dumbly at my neighbor, waiting for the punchline. It is an unspoken pact in these here hills: eggs, milk and sugar’s for the taking, but you don’t touch someone’s wood.
The kind of firewood you order in the country, when you order it, how you stack it, how you keep it dry, it’s a form of parenting; it is holy ground. I felt like a jerk for thinking these things in front of my new neighbor. After all, there’s no manual for country living — you have to know things to know them, which is another way of saying that you have to mess up to understand what you should know — and my neighbor, like so many people who have moved to rural areas from large cities during COVID-19, did not know a lot. But the great leveler was approaching, the season that separates the wearers of long underwear from those who think that leggings work just fine. “Winter is coming!” I wanted to cry into the six feet of night separating me from my dear neighbor. “And there is much to learn!”
“I’m going into what will be my third winter in Kerhonkson [N.Y.],” says Caitlin Barrett, the founder of the brand-language studio, Doublebit, who seesawed between Los Angeles and New York City before settling full time in Ulster County, “and can think of far too many ways that living in the city prepared me for exactly nothing that upstate winters would bring.”
I was in the same boat of unpreparedness when my husband and I decamped from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, N.Y., to a dilapidated log cabin in the Berkshire woods 12 years ago. We had no idea that the dirt driveway that snaked up to the house so fetchingly would cost $70 to plow each time it snowed, or that raking would become a career change we could put on our LinkedIn profiles, or that you shouldn’t use bougie biodegradable cat litter made out of corn, because you know who loves corn? Mice. We didn’t know anything about bursting pipes or well water or what a sump pump was. We were young and we were homeowners! Who lived in the country, now?
The first time we got the shivers in our under-insulated house, I, too, walked to the neighbors to inquire about the “wood situation,” and my neighbor kindly informed me that I was roughly five months too late to place a winter wood order. “If you want wood in October, you order it in spring,” he said, matter-of-factly. “That way, it has time to season.” (Aren’t there spice rubs for that, I’m afraid I said.)
Regardless of where you live, by the time the first snowflake hits, you want to have your wood stacked, seasoned and covered with a tarp, your plumbers, electricians and snow plowers lined up. But for newcomers to areas where skilled laborers can’t be located with a simple Google search, just finding such lifesavers is already a feat.
“Ask at your local hardware store, ask at the grocery store,” suggests screenwriter and ski instructor Dustin Schell, who lives with his husband, the writer Alexander Chee, part-time in rural Vermont. “These people will have business cards behind the counter — they know who to refer you to.”
As an alternative, gallery owner Jeffrey Lee suggests staying with the people who were already servicing the house.
“If there was a plumber that the former owners used, continue that relationship,” Lee says, adding that you have to privilege nurture if you want to survive nature. “Don’t just call them when you need them, but hire them for a simple job during a slow time to establish a rapport. My first year, when the people doing the septic tank busted the pipeline from my well to my house, I needed a plumber, pronto. Luckily, I had called the plumber for a simple job already, and had established a personal connection. That connection goes a long way when water is gushing down your driveway!”
Though she lives in New York’s Dutchess County now, author and teacher T Kira Madden is originally from Boca Raton, Fla., (“the first time my windows iced over my mother handed me a spatula,”) and credits her wife Hannah Beresford — a native of freezing Voorheesville, N.Y. — with a quick and dirty introduction to upstate Winter 101.
“Kitty litter can be used to add traction if your car is stuck. One should not sit in a running car surrounded by snow without digging out the exhaust pipe first — that’s a big one,” Madden remembers of her wife’s early advice. “And check your local ordinance for snow parking restrictions. Hannah comes from a town that rotates ‘summer tires’ and ‘winter tires’ regularly, though I still don’t entirely know what that means.”
While a lot of newcomers get excited about the transcendent experiences they’re going to have in front of their fireplaces, this new relationship energy dies with the arrival of a four-digit heating bill. Fireplaces are decorative; wood stoves will actually heat your house. Plus, wood stoves can serve as de facto stovetops when the power gives out. (Which it will. A lot.)
“I guess we’re romantically attached to the idea of not having a generator,” says Schell, who has had to cook off of his wood stove during more power outages than he can count, though he still hasn’t made the leap to buy a back-up power source. “As long as nobody has broken a leg or anything, it’s kind of a relief when the power goes. It’s the only time we’re truly unplugged.”
Schell’s husband Alex concurs, as long as the romance hits during a time when he can handle the “unpluggedness.” After having experienced one too many end-of-semester trials in a “productivity dead zone,” Alex no longer travels to their country home when grades are due.
“A lot of people assume there will be cell phone anywhere they want to live,” Schell said, with wisdom that came hard. “Well, there isn’t any here.”
While wearing woolen long johns, owning a pushing shovel, fitting shrink film to your windows and keeping your cell phone charged will give you a leg up against the cold, successfully adapting to winter life in the country is as much about what you do (and don’t do) as how you act while doing it.
“The night we moved here,” remembers author Dani Shapiro of her exodus from Manhattan to a rural part of Connecticut’s Litchfield County, “the house key wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and we didn’t have any cell service. We drove into the center of town where there was a grocery store. I walked in and said, ‘Is there a phone I can use, I need to call the city.’ And the manager said, ‘What city is that?’”
“In the local delis and grocery stores, steer clear of asking for something ‘on the side,’” counsels author Lisa Taddeo. “If you want your bagel untoasted, but they’re clearly running all the bagels through those toasting machines, just get the damn thing toasted.”
Going with the flow is crucial to success in a country winter and beyond — as is realizing, and respecting, that there is, indeed, a flow to the place you’ve moved.
“Get involved in the dynamics of your neighborhood,” urges writer and activist Mira Ptacin, who lives on an island in Maine. “Your community has been a living ecosystem since before you arrived. You’re a guest, a neophyte. Get to know the lay of the land, don’t just put photos up on social media.”
If you have a pet with you this winter, remember that you are not the only person with a domestic animal. “Living in the middle of nowhere feels so much safer when you know the names of every neighbor and their dog,” says Barrett, whose dog neighbors are Walter, Luna, Chuck, Raleigh, Toby, Diggy and Frankie, for the record.
And if you have a child, same thing goes: other people have children, too, and they were in line, first.
“People who live in cities are accustomed to getting appointments with their doctors anytime they need one,” Shapiro. “Scheduling things like pediatrician visits, it’s not that hard to do. But out here, especially during COVID, there are doctors who have simply closed their practices. Pediatricians, primary care practitioners, OB-GYNs you need to line these doctors up and understand that they won’t be able to see you right away.”
After seasoned firewood, patience might be the essential winter tool. “There is only a finite amount of people servicing a huge area,” says Jeffrey Lee, who encourages newcomers to include plumbers, electricians, snow plowers, postmasters, exterminators and other winter heroes on their holiday card list.
And finally, you’ll need a plan to deal with rodents, who are just as excited about your cozy new getaway as you.
“You can try to fight the mice all you want, but they are gonna come in,” said Barrett, whose mouse guests are particularly fond of expiring between the cookie sheets she stores next to the stove. A few drops of peppermint oil on a cotton puff will subdue — if not eradicate — the odor of the decomposing guests you cannot find.
But above all, love thy neighbor. Love thy neighbor despite the 12-foot inflatable Grinch they currently have plugged in on their front lawn. Because it’s your neighbors who are truly going to be your winter fuel.
Our neighbors have helped me get bats out of the bedroom and given us the numbers of contractors who actually show up, and we’ve been there for their jumpstarts and their power outages with a cleared shelf in our fridge. (We have a generator. Although it is broken as I write.)
When the holidays roll around, we look forward to Rich and Rosemary’s cheese ball encircled with Ritz crackers, which, let’s not be precious about it, are truly the best kind.
As a newcomer to the country, you are going to have a lot of questions, and that’s fine. But once you get some answers, make sure you give as much as you have taken.
“Step out of your home, wear a mask, and introduce yourself to your neighbors,” implores Ptacin. Scrape the ice off of someone else’s car windows. Shovel the snow out of your neighbor’s walkway once in a while. “Be a resource and a helper rather than an urban dweller who has come to reap the benefits of being privileged enough to escape to the country.”
Put out the welcome mat. Share some of your wood. Along with the business card of a local logger and a reminder to order winter wood in … spring.