Everything I know about Blizzards I learned from Little House on the Prairie

My book

My book

With the winds howling and shaking the house and today’s blizzard looming large on everyone’s consciousness, I started thinking about winter storms and blizzards in particular and our human response to what nature can dish out. Like many children of the 70’s, I grew up reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie series, and when I say I “grew up reading” I really mean that I devoured those books, I owned and internalized them in the way that the best children’s literature can imprint on one’s life. You can find my 8 year old name scrawled inside each and every one of the books, lovingly purchased from the Scholastic book order, and claimed with a fierce possessiveness for myself.

Ma makes it back to the house from doing the chores, Illustration by Garth Williams from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Ma makes it back to the house from doing the chores, Illustration by Garth Williams from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Even though I grew up in Maine, where we can blizzard with the best of them, everything I knew about winter storms I learned from Ma and Pa Ingalls and the hardships they endured as homesteaders on the American prairie. The number one thing of course, is that in order to go outside during a blizzard, you need to string a rope up from your house to whatever your dooryard destination is, so that you won’t get disoriented in the white out, miss the house on your return, and wander off into the oblivion of a blizzard on a flat featureless prairie. Practical advice indeed, except that here in Maine, you can’t walk very far in any conditions without hitting a tree or boulder; there’s very little chance of walking off very far into the wilderness unless you are trying to. I learned too that you can wait out a storm in a snow cave, like Pa did for three days that same storm, wrapped in a buffalo hide coat, eating the oyster crackers and Christmas candy he had been bringing back from town as a treat for the girls when the storm over took him.

Pa in his snow cave, waiting out the blizzard, illustration by Garth Williams in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Pa in his snow cave, waiting out the blizzard.

Blizzards were life or death situations in Little House on the Prairie, far removed from the relative safety and comfort in which we are experiencing the storm today. On the prairie in the 19th century, you learned about an upcoming storm by looking up and seeing it coming, gray storm clouds approaching across the plains. Here in the 21rst century, you couldn’t miss the screeching predictions of doom related to this storm, no matter how deep a snow cave you were camped out in. We have the luxury of preparation, my screen today has been flooded with pictures of empty store (and liquor store) shelves as friends and acquaintances prepared to hunker down and wait it out. The Ingalls and all the other families living on the Midwestern frontier needed to be prepared at any point for a weather disaster, and it is in that spirit that I keep my wood box filled to the top all winter, regardless of how nice and blue the sky is outside.

Some things haven’t changed from Little House on the Prairie times to now; a good winter storm changes our behavior and focuses our attention on what is necessary, and what can be let go. As Laura describes, the chores still need doing, the cattle need water, the fire needs stoking, and that is as true in 1850 as it is in 2015. The elemental aspects of life don’t change. Most of us are at home today, take my advice and stay there, and send out a little thought of safety and gratitude for the public servants who can’t be home today, and instead are out keeping the roads clear and responding to those who need help on a day as wild as today. Don’t make their jobs any harder. Eat the rest of the ice cream, play another round of scrabble, put another stick on the fire and curl up with your book. If you get truly house crazy, bundle up and head out, but don’t forget to tie a rope to your door, and around your waist, so you can find your way back again.


Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.