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When It Snows in Kansas

Translating Snow

by ROBERT DAY

Three of us are gathered here in Bly, Kan., at the co-op, to talk about the snow. It has been coming down in thumb-sized wet flakes, but by afternoon the sky will be white with tiny dots, giving the impression we have lost our horizons. The ground is still warm, so the snow will melt into the pastures. If it gets thick enough — and it will — it will fill the shallow wells we have for our livestock and homes. Maybe even the creeks will run when spring comes.

"A million-dollar snow," says one of the men. "If you count snow as cash on which we’ll earn interest next spring."

"And a couple years beyond that," says the second man, "if we didn’t have a debt to the drought."

It amuses us to think of snow as money.

We take our gloves off the propane stove, put on our coats and head for the door. We are off to move hay, check stock tanks, get wood in for the stoves, and before night park the pickups pointing toward where we might go the next day. We don’t know it yet, but by morning we won’t be going anyplace soon: Some of us in the country will be a week digging out.

"’It was snowing, and it was going to snow,’ " I say as we step outside.

***

A man on a farm just outside of Bly is Steve Reuber. When the snow lets up, he gets into his 1962 John Deere 4010 with a front-end blade and heads toward Bly. The county can’t get down here yet, but Steve can, so he does. We are a four-dirt-street tic-tac-toe of a town. That plus the Oil Road that leads to the U.S. highway. Steve has been plowing our streets — and our driveways — for 20 years. Same tractor. Same Steve.

"He’s better than government," is what we say.

This year he’ll take extra care to clear the streets all the way to the mailboxes, because otherwise our mailman, Gene Wurm, will have to get out of his car each time to make his delivery. Mr. Wurm is past 80 and we don’t want him to take a fall. Most of us out here are old, and we are mindful of each other that way: Quick to hurt, slow to heal.

***

"It was snowing
And it was going to snow."

It’s a line from the poet Wallace Stevens. When I am not who I am in Bly, I am a teacher who knows about poets. The men here understand that and don’t hold it against me.

"It’s not something we’d say," says the man who mentioned the million-dollar snow.

"I read ‘Snow-Bound,’ " says the other. "In school."

"The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.’ "

"If you say so."

"And this is Robert Frost," I say:

"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.’ "

By now we are at our trucks.

"Frost isn’t talking to us either," says the man who was taught Whittier. "We don’t have woods, and nothing ‘fills up’ except roads and draws with drifts."

Gene Wurm goes by on the Oil Road heading to Bly.

"It is money and it is going to be money," I say, looking around.

We are quiet for a moment. We all know the sound of snow in the wind, but you can’t name it.

"Better your other poetry for who we are," says the first man.

I am thinking of drifts, of Steve Reuber, of the hand-pump wells we will be using the next few days because the power lines are down. No phones. No television. Wood smoke in the gray mornings. Snow as snow.

ROBERT DAY is the author of the novel "The Last Cattle Drive." He teaches at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kansas.