So I find myself driving once again on Rogers Road to the town garage to get more sand to throw on the driveway.

Everything seems normal. The big door to the garage where they keep the salted sand is open. Most of the time a smaller pile or two is dumped on the sides where residents both grouchy and cheerful can get a few bucketfuls for their own uses. Sometimes the piles have been through a couple of cycles of rain, sleet, freezing rain or snow and are frozen solid.

Tracks are seen recently in the woods of Troy. A lot more snow-glazing warm days than there used to be is making Dana Wilde’s driveway more of a problem. Photo by Dana Wilde

This time an enormous flow of light-colored, granularly moist, beachlike sand, perfect for my driveway, is blocking me from backing in. It’s 2 or 3 feet deep out into the road. In fact, the road is impassable beyond the garage because of this river of sand. For some reason I drive my RAV4 into the pile so far I’m stuck before I can even get out to start filling up my 5-gallon pails. The sand is up almost over the hood of the car. I put it in reverse and start backing and forthing and twisting the steering wheel to try and get turned around. It’s starting to seem like I might have to call for help. I hope I have my phone with me. The front wheels are spinning deeper and deeper in the sand.

And then, yeah, I wake up.

I don’t think you need a degree in Jungian psychology to know the meaning of this dream.

My driveway — which Backyard Naturalist readers may recall being described as a luge run over a steep-sided causeway over a brook and through the woods — is more of a problem than it was, say, 20 years ago. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is, 20 more February birthdays since then. Another is, a lot more snow-glazing warm days than there used to be. Unless the snow disappears (which is not yet usual in December, January, February), the top of it melts and then freezes when the temperature tops about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the surface becomes luge — or even figure-skate-ready. It has to be sanded so cars don’t slide off the luge run.

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This ice used to happen once or twice in January (when there used to be a “January thaw” — look it up in a glossary of archaic phrases); around the transition to March; occasionally in December. In the last 10 or so years, December has become the primary sand-the-driveway month, with frequent follow-up the rest of the winter.

This month’s subzeros have seemed like old times. One morning about 7 o’clock the thermometer said minus 14. That’s cold any time. It’s not the minus 28 we’d see sometimes back in the 1900s, but, you know, it’s cold. Zero is cold. Up in Québec, 3 is an average midwinter low. I guess they think that’s cold, but not as cold as we do.

Many Canadians call 3, minus 16. And similarly, most of the rest of the world calls 32 zero. Boiling point for them is 100; for us it’s 212. This seems like the stuff dreams are made on, yet it has a real-world explanation: We are among the few places to measure temperature by Fahrenheit rather than Celsius scale, partly thanks to President Reagan disbanding the U.S. Metric Board in the 1980s. While I was throwing sand around the driveway last week I was wondering what caused the freezing and boiling points to land on those seemingly random numbers.

I further wondered why I have never looked it up before. All I can figure is that sometime during the walk down the icy wasteland from the road end of the driveway to the house, neuron synapses glaze over and I forget what I was wondering up near the road, or even that I was wondering. This happens more and more as the birthdays pile up the way snow used to against drift fences in fields, which seem to have mysteriously disappeared in the last 30 years or so. I wonder what happened to them. More and more, winter is like trying to un-stuck the car.

Anyway, where was I before the truth broke in with all its bothersome matters-of-fact about ice brain. Cold. Freeze. Fahrenheit. It turns out the Fahrenheit scale was devised by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit in the 1720s around the time he invented the mercury thermometer. He marked off degrees using four reference points: zero for the point where a salt brine solution froze; 30, the point where regular water froze; 90, the temperature of the human body; and 240, the boiling point of water. As thermometers improved, the freezing and boiling points of regular water got refined to 32 and 212 for the convenience of having exactly 180 degrees between them, with the freezing point of the water, ice and salt solution remaining zero.

In 1742, Anders Celsius proposed a temperature scale that represented higher heat with lower numbers — zero for the boiling point of water, 100 for the freezing point. I wonder if he didn’t have in mind star magnitudes, which since ancient times have represented brighter light with lower numbers (e.g., the North Star (Polaris) shines at about magnitude 2, the sun at about magnitude minus 26). Star magnitudes are still marked like that. But for the Celsius scale, cooler heads prevailed, as it were, and so boiling point became 100, freezing point zero.

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Last weekend it got above 25 for a little while, and it felt warm. Hey, I remember this, I thought. I’ve heard youthful TV meteorologists call 25 “extremely cold” even though it actually feels warm after a week or two of actual cold, e.g., zero. (Absolute zero, the total absence of heat energy, is by the way actually called zero on the Kelvin scale; in Fahrenheit, it’s minus 459; Celsius, minus 273. I wonder what’s happening, or not happening, at minus 460.)

Cold and warm are relative. They make up components of a general theory of weather relativity, similar to space and time making up one single framework of four dimensions whose bends we perceive as gravity, and where the sand in the machinery of our brains is the experience of time as a flow, in which we are all stuck no matter how much twisting and turning we do to get out of it.

So as warm and cold glaze the driveway, all we can do is keep sanding, so we don’t go over the edge.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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