The Long Winter, by Anthony Mathenia
Around 12,800 years ago, much of the world was entombed with ice. In the north, rugged tribes in caves huddled around crackling fires and prayed for summer. And then one day a fiery comet appeared from the black depths of the great rift - the harbinger of the apocalypse.
The comet’s impact cracked the ice and lit the skies. Temperatures climbed. The melting ice sheets and glaciers deluged the earth. The coastal cities and the island nations of the south were swept away. It was the end of an age.
The survivors of the end of the world counted the days anew and watched the heavens for signs of change. They told stories of what had been and what might come again. And history was lost to legend.
Summer child, do you remember their words?
“Winter is coming.”
When I wrote the frigid apocalypse in my novel Paradise Earth: Day Zero, I wasn’t thinking of the great ice age of old. My inspiration was a series of blizzards that ravaged the American Dakotas from the fall of 1880 to the spring of 1881. Author Laura Ingalls Wilder vividly recounts the terror of this time in her Newberry award-winning novel The Long Winter.
Wilder’s Little House books have always been a secret pleasure of mine. My younger sister had the whole series covering the life of the author from her early days in the big woods of Minnesota, to childhood on the Kansas prairies, to young-adulthood in the fledgling town of De Smet, South Dakota.
In general, they’re lighthearted reads about quaint American frontier life. However, The Long Winter stands in contrast. It’s a harrowing tale of survival at the edge of death during the legendary “snow winter”.
At the end of the summer of 1880, an old Native American stumbles into the general store to warn the white men that a terrible winter is coming. Pa Ingalls takes the prophecy seriously; he has already observed the muskrats building their mud homes extra thick. The family moves from their farm shanty into town to weather the season.
Unlike the shaman and the muskrats, the people of De Smet have mostly lost their connection to the earth. It’s the late 19the century and progress has crisscrossed the nation with great iron railways. The frontier town has become dependent on regular shipments of consumer goods. It’s a fatal mistake as the unending snowstorms bury the rails and stop the trains. Meager food stocks quickly diminish and there is no coal to heat their homes.
Laura’s days are spent twisting feed hay into sticks. The sharp blades lacerate her cold, raw hands and the wood stove quickly devours the meager sticks. It’s barely enough to keep from freezing and make a little rough bread to eat.
At night Laura lies awake, listening to the howling wind and waiting for the long winter to stop. Her mind begins to fog over from starvation and cold and the unending grind of raw survival. Wilder somberly writes:
Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb. Pa’s voice slid away into the ceaseless noises of the storm. She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything, before she could even listen or think, but it would never stop. It had been blowing forever.
It’s been over a century since the Ingalls family struggled to stay alive during that long winter. The age of progress has divorced us even more from the land. It’s estimated that without the steady flow of delivery trucks most cities would run out of food within a couple of weeks. Today, a forecast of even an inch of snow causes a primal panic that clears store shelves of bread and milk.
It’s troubling to imagine what would happen if modern society saw the mountains of snow that the winter of 1880-1881 brought to the Dakotas. In The Long Winter the townspeople nearly kill an opportunistic shopkeeper for jacking up the price of wheat. And when the train finally arrives, a mob ransacks it and robs it blind.
Today, airplanes fly overhead, crisscrossing the sky with persistent plumes. The aerosol trails slowly spread out into a milky haze. The rich cerulean sky of yesterday is a rarity - visible only after storms cleanse the heavens. Then the geo-engineering starts again, creating the new norm of “mostly cloudy”.
In the 1970’s, climatologists were sounding the alarm bells of a coming ice age. A decade later “global warming” became the cry of the times. As I write this, it’s seventy degrees in mid-December in North Carolina. Only the mannequins in the storefront windows are wearing coats. Meanwhile at the edges of the earth the Antarctic ice sheet has reached a record high.
Is winter coming?
I watch the skies and think of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”:
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Anthony Mathenia is a novelist, blogger, and freelance writer.
Having spent the majority of his life trapped in a religious cult he now writes on the liberation of the human spirit.
His debut novel Paradise Earth, about the survival of faith and love after the apocalypse, was published by Curiosity Quills Press in 2012.
Anthony lives in Illinois with his wife and daughter.
He sincerely apologizes for waking you up on Saturday mornings in order to recruit you.