Sunday, December 21, 2008

Life in the Cold

It's cold. Really cold for this part of Ohio. This picture, taken at 10:30 p.m., is actually up a degree from what the temperature read at 9 p.m.: negative 10. I've not seen this particular thermometer read that temperature ever.

When it's this cold, everything becomes brittle, molecules slowing down, expanding, distributing weight. We, like all cold-resistant, warm-blooded creatures, shiver in the cold as a way of warming up - a form of conduction.

When it's this cold, things creak and snap. My boots make a "squeak, squeak" sound in the snow similar to tennis shoes on a gym floor. Waves of feather-light snow drift across the road. My truck groans when I put the key in, then rolls its eyes, shrugs and turns over as only a Toyota can.

When it's this cold, things stop working. Things move slower. Engines crack. I remember first learning what engine block heaters were in 1997 when I lived in the west behind the broad back of the Teton Range in Victor, Idaho.

This kind of cold brings a unique silence. Light becomes stark. Darkness a quiet cave.

In this kind of cold, nature protects itself by huddling - called aggregating in ecology. Bernd Heinrich describes the aggregation of garter snakes in Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival: "writhing masses of these snakes pack themselves like live spaghetti into specific crevices - ten thousand in a single depression of a few cubic feet - in the rocks of a barren region near Winnipeg. The snakes spending the winter at these spots avoid freezing and gain protection."

Tonight, we make like snakes and huddle together. Although huskies are fully equipped for arctic temperatures - their thick double-coats enable them to withstand temperatures below zero comfortably by placing the muzzle and nose between their rear legs, curling a tail over their face and sleeping - we bring all the dogs inside tonight. It's quite a scene here at the ranch. Dogs are sprawled.

There is a rule I've heard mushers use: the rule of 30s. It states that skin exposed at 30 below in 30 mile an hour winds for 30 seconds will freeze. The wind howls around the house tonight, blowing snow in small drifts. I'm not sure how fast it blows, but I'm sure thankful I'm inside.

A Winter Reading List
These are some of the titles I've enjoyed lately.

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival Bernd Heinrich
Life In The Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology Peter J. Marchand
Winter Count Barry Lopez
Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape Barry Lopez
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons In Greenland by one of my favorite authors, Gretel Ehrlich
The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold by Gretel Ehrlich
and of course...Novels and Stories by Jack London which includes "The Call of the Wild," "White Fang," "The Sea-Wolf", "Klondike and Other Stories" but does not include the classic "To Build a Fire."

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