How To Survive A Polar Vortex: Message From The Smart Wren

February 19, 2021

By Farmer Skip Connett

It began in ice and ended in ice, our seven-day plunge into the polar vortex.  The jet stream went on a bender, wobbling so far south that snow fell in Galveston, a blizzard paralyzed Dallas, and Austin was colder than Anchorage.

We vegetable and flower farmers spent Thursday miserable in the freezing rain, yet determined to put coats on our crops. They must have been as confused as we were:  only two weeks earlier we were adjusting to record highs, resigned to KXAN’s meteorologist Jim Spencer’s prediction that winter was about over, one more week at most. Valentine’s Day was only four days away — love cheered on by early blooming forsythia and green blades of grass announcing Spring.

Only parental love can explain why we bothered putting those thin coats of row cover on our babies when we knew the frozen-hard truth: we were witnessing an epic assault not even the toughest of the bunch — hard-neck garlic — was likely to survive. The hope we put in Nature’s row cover - an armor of ice and snow — was short-lived once we looked at the forecast with cold clear eyes:  Austin, TX, would become Austin, MN for an entire week!

This Central Texas farmer struggles to find the right metaphor or image to capture this exhausting mix-up of beauty and existential threat: what would be the polar opposite of a polar bear flailing in warm waters desperate to find solid ice? A naked Texan farmer stumbling through rows of frozen vegetables searching for his winter clothes?  

Growing vegetables and flowers in winter in Central Texas has always been a gamble. You win some and lose some. Losing everything in a single week is a game-changer, especially when our focus has been absorbed by handling record breaking heat. We never planned for opposite extremes — extremes we assumed were off-the-grid impossible. 

As with COVID, climate crisis fatigue settled in awhile ago: forget prevention; mitigation is now the best a farmer can do so late in the game — shorten the summer season, lengthen the winter one, grow hardier, more drought tolerant crops with less cultivation and inputs. And pray for the wisdom to know one’s place and purpose in this strained ecosystem overwhelmed by excesses.

Enter now, the vortex. Suddenly and completely, every preoccupation is centered around life’s essentials: food, water, and shelter. Monday’s long grocery store lines took us back to last February. If COVID was a marathon in surgical masks, this race is a sprint in ski masks and boots.

Today, our sixth without a thaw, I’m trying to hold onto the beauty of this storm before thinking about what awaits us in those tortured fields. This wolverine of a storm was an improbable gift to numbed senses. Who can remember ever walking here through drifts of fine powder squeaking under foot? Or discovering ice so thick on stock ponds you were tempted to walk on them? Or a silence and stillness so breathtaking you could hear your breath vaporizing in air as clean and clear as if you were living in Vermont? 

And, oh, the birds! Hear their warm chorus no longer drowned out by the engines of commerce. See so many birds of different feathers coming together, searching for food trapped, like our vegetables and flowers, under snow and ice. A real-life survival game plays out before us in stark, high-contrast images — throngs of feather-ruffled robins looking like they just landed on the moon; a lone pair of rabbit tracks venturing into the bare field, only to turn back;  a young doe wandering along the river, dazed and confused; cows bawling in the distance.

The coming weeks will bring investigations, calls for reform, dire warnings of more vortexes to come. Debates over whether global warming played a leading role in this historic weather event will intensify.  And we the weary farmers might want to challenge more chorus-like the short-sighted imperative preached for more than 50 years now — get big or get out. Small is not only beautiful but smart and resilient, too. 

That’s the message from this wren that slipped through a little hole in our barn wall. While the big birds are fighting for the remaining seed we put out on Monday, she calmly searches for bugs in the wood pile next to the pot-bellied stove where I am writing this piece. Small allowed her to fit through the hole when other birds couldn’t. Smart made her know that the cats lurking around the bird feeder are as hungry as she is. Yes, indeed, small may be the new big.

More old saws are coming out of the woodwork…A warm house never freezes… the only thing standing between the Arctic and Austin is a barbed wire fence… 

While I’m still in Austin, Minnesota, I find comfort in the words from its native son, Robert Bly, whose best poems often celebrate the countryside he knows so well. Here is a stanza from A Poem in Three Parts:

“Rising from a bed, where I dreamt

Of long rides past castles and hot coals

The sun lies happily on my knees;

I have suffered and survived the night

Bathed in dark water, like any blade of grass.”

Today I want to be like this wren, surviving last night’s dark ice, building tomorrow’s tiny nests with blades of grass.

P.S.: If you want to see why that wren found its way into the barn, this little video clip has the answer. Hint: it’s not just the hungry house cats.