February is not a month given to surprises. It knows its pitiable place in the pantheon of the Roman calendar—named not for a god but a ritual—knows that it was a late inclusion to fill the interminable blank space the Romans left for winter, knows it was short-changed on days, and knows, too, that the inclusion of that first r would render it virtually unpronounceable for much of the world’s population. Still, February has a role and it performs it well, even if that role is as bland and uninteresting as a bowl of oatmeal.
Until this year, that is. For some reason—climate change, fracking, gas prices falling below two dollars per gallon, a shift in the space-time continuum—February has deviated from its routine. Its monotonous predictability has proven unpredictable.
My first surprise came upon opening my electric bill. Normally a thing of dread (our 110-year-old farmhouse has all the insulation of a wood rat’s den), the bill turned out to be the lowest ever for a January. It was so low that I checked the name on the bill to see if maybe I had opened my neighbor’s mail by mistake.
January’s unseasonably warm weather continued into February, though with a schizophrenic messiness. Days of whiteouts and blowing snow morphed into springlike days with temperatures in the seventies. Records fell across the state for the highest February temperatures ever recorded, and skies were filled with northbound geese. It didn’t matter that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, thus guaranteeing another six weeks of winter. The common consensus around here was that if neither the National Weather Service or the Farmer’s Almanac have any clue over long-range forecasts, then only a damned fool or an Easterner would take the word (or shadow) of a rodent.
Forecasters were quick to follow the unsettled pattern with giddy pronouncements about the impending tornado season. While I like reminders to clean out my basement and plan for severe weather, it seemed a little early to start trash-talking spring, and anyway we had our hands full enough with wild weather fluctuations to start wringing our hands over an unforeseeable future.
During the last storm, as the wind howled down from the north and blowing snow dropped visibility to a quarter mile, a big tree limb snapped off and draped itself over the electrical line to our house.
Power was out all over town, and though we still had electricity, I wasn’t positive it would last. A call to the electrical company garnered a promise that a linesman would come out and at least provide advice as the line from house to pole was ultimately my responsibility. Due to the innumerable problems inflicting the company during the blizzard, the dispatcher said, he couldn’t say when, if ever, I could expect to see the linesman.
As the first week gave way to the second without a visitation, I began to study the offending limb with the idea of removing it myself. Without getting electrocuted, that is. A long narrow snag jutted out over the line, with most of the weight was cradled by lower limbs. If I could find something to reach that high, I reasoned, it might be possible to simply push the limb off.
Google queries turned up thousands of webpages all but guaranteeing instant death should I handle, grasp, graze or in any other manner come into contact with an object touching a power line, and several others claimed that wood could act as a conductor. I could find dozens of documented cases of homeowners meeting their demise by doing exactly what I proposed, but not one success story.
Still, how hard could it be? If I used a fiberglass painter pole to shove it off, would that act as a conductor? And anyway, how electrified could the limb be? I mean, if it carried enough electricity to fry me to cinders, wouldn’t the entire tree be electrified?
I decided to experiment. One balmy, sun-blessed day I walked out and with only minor trepidation lay a hand on the tree trunk. It was cool to the touch, slightly rough. No buzz. That in itself was something of a surprise, considering all I’d read.
Empowered, I retrieved a saw and started trimming away some of the lower limbs. As they gave way, the broken branch sagged toward the ground, adding pressure to the power line while simultaneously shifting the snag to a steeper pitch. Very carefully I removed the supporting limbs while keeping an eye on the branch dangling above me. When it appeared ready to fall on its own, I found a fallen sapling with a nice forked end and used it to apply pressure to the branch’s base. Three sharp shoves and the whole thing came crashing down, narrowly missing both the shed and myself. The power line was intact.
That in itself was February’s biggest surprise. Past attempts at tree trimming always ended in disaster, so this was a first.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m feeling cocky. For the rest of the month I’m laying low. There’s still a lot of February left, and I’ve never been one for surprises.