It wasn’t until I moved to Skunk Hollow that I learned there are five seasons, not four, to the rural weather year at this latitude, and the fifth one’s name is Mud.
Mud’s not something you need to think much about in an urban or suburban environment, whatever the season, because there’s never really that much of it.
It turns up at the driveway’s edge, or in spots scattered here and there across the lawn; you just step over it. It may lurk in larger deposits on the bottoms of big potholes, but you’re going to steer around them anyway. If you’re a runner who favors the city lakes you learn to deal with a little more density on the multimodal paths.
It’s different in the sticks. Seven years’ experience has taught Sallie and me that when mud season settles over Skunk Hollow – or drops with a sudden, soft thud, as it did last Monday night – we are in a world of dirt, and who knows for how long.
Like many homes in this part of western Wisconsin, ours is separated from the nearest pavement by an essentially dirt road. In our case it’s an eighth of a mile of narrow, undulating, curvy driveway topped with a nice, firm layer of graded gravel.
This makes for a perfectly fine passage in spring, summer and fall – and for most of the winter it’s not bad. We run the vehicles back and forth to pack down the early snowfalls, forming an ice road atop the rock that’s as easy as asphalt to clear with a big snowthrower.
But in mud season it becomes less a road than a series of interruptions – ruts, puddles, soupy pools, vast, tire-tracked expanses that persist until the subsurface frost surrenders, allowing normal drainage to resume. Which can take weeks, and usually does.
Meanwhile, this silty terra-cotta slime – which resembles nothing so much as the slip surrounding a potter’s wheel – attaches to anything that trods it, touches it or passes within spatter range: Tires, fenders, shoes, pants legs, briefcases, shopping bags …
Even the mud-averse cats come back inside with flecks at their tail tips, and over the weekend I found some had gathered in my beard, I know not how.
So now a pair of old slip-on hunting boots occupies the spot reserved in fairer times for flip-flops or moccasins – those silly garden clogs get sucked right off your feet in mud season – and we hunker down, waiting for the subterranean ice to go out.
The right boots for the job
As we decluttered the garage on Saturday, I rediscovered a pair of knee-high green rubber boots I’d forgotten I had but am thoroughly glad I kept these past 20 years since I bought them in Anchorage, en route to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At the urging of Allen Smith, then The Wilderness Society’s top staffer in Alaska, I had turned aside all options available in the lower 48 in favor of this particular design, made for folks who work the disassembly lines in factory fishing fleets.
Allen explained that as they were made very snug at the ankle and down over the instep, the extra support helping one to stay upright in a pitching pile of fish guts, they would be essential to stepping with poise from tussock to wobbly tussock on the coastal plain at the Beaufort Sea.
The tussocks are knobs of plant matter, some living and some late, that form a thick carpet above the permafrost in a region where the subsurface ice never completely subsides.
The boots should be perfect for mud season in western Wisconsin, and I wish only that I could find more enthusiasm for putting them to the test.
The season at its worst, so far
After our first two mud seasons, which were merely prolonged affronts to convenience, we had one that raised a notable risk to personal safety.
The lowest spot in the driveway filled so deep with watery silt that Sallie’s subcompact couldn’t make it through, and my big Jeep had difficulties as well. That made us think about access for, say, an ambulance if one should be needed.
Especially as the moat-like blockade entered its second week, and then a third.
With a pickax and a high-pressure stream of curses, I cut a drainage ditch across the driveway and watched the pool drop an inch or so from its crest, while the contents thickened from the consistency of bean soup to something approaching quicksand.
So I got out the chainsaw and went looking for a fairly straight tree with few limbs and a thickness matching the ditch’s width. In the sole lucky moment of this three-day ordeal, I found one rather close at hand, easily felled and just about as perfectly columnar as a utility pole.
I trimmed it to length, looped some line around it and dragged it alongside the ditch, whose walls had now collapsed from the continued inflow. Spades, hoes, gravel rakes, hand trowels, a scoop made from a coffee can – nothing I used to remove old mud could keep up with the new.
Eventually I left the log lying half-buried in the ditch and ran the Jeep back and forth across it until I’d pressed it level with the driveway. Of course, that also cut the drainage to a trickle and restored the mud lagoon that was our problem in the first place.
Well, at least an ambulance could get through without breaking an axle.
So Sallie parked on the township road for a couple of weeks, slogging through the muck or phoning for a lift in the Jeep that became our mud season jitney, spattered with terra cotta to the door handles. And I began bracing with each ring of the doorbell to answer the delivery driver’s question, “What’s up with that log buried in your driveway?
Later that spring we sprung for fresh gravel and serious regrading, which made a little positive difference for a while. This year we’re thinking about getting estimates for a concrete apron in front of the garage, just large enough to hold mud season at bay a few car lengths from our doors.
I hate to add another chunk of impervious surface to the earth, but enough is enough.
Whose name was mud?
This year the mud is just as extensive though not so deep as in previous years, possibly explainable as a little-studied consequence of the long El Nino season. We are hoping without any basis whatsoever that its sudden appearance augurs for a short life and a rapid departure. But there’s no rational basis for linking the two.
As far as I can tell, very little objective knowledge has gathered around the phenomenon of mud season, so it remains a firmly subjective experience, variable and comparatively fleeting though none the less obnoxious for its brevity.
I did, however, learn something interesting on Wednesday about the origin of the phrase, “your name is mud” and its many variations.
I had long bought into the explanation that this was a reference to Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician disgraced for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Not so, according to a number of sources who trace the expression much further back in time. Perhaps the most concise statement of the generally agreed-upon debunking was over at the historymyths blog:
The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, dates the first written example of the phrase at 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, not an American one. It meant what it appears to mean – that your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do such-and-such.
Now you know.