Fire and ice
Nature's Notebook – Tim Abbott
January, 13, 2011
I was reminded of these lines on a cold, clear morning, with powder snow drifting and woodsmoke on the wind. Without fire, the range of our species would have remained restricted to warmer latitudes, although some indigenous people above the Arctic Circle manage with very little use of fire, rendering fat for fuel and eating most of their food raw. For the rest of us, though, a winter without fuel is impossible.
Bigger is better for heat retention. My broad shoulders and barrel chest retain heat at the core, although as I age my extremities feel the cold more acutely. My 7-year-old son, Elias, is another heat generator, and when I walk with his ungloved hand in mine I can feel it is warmer than my own, and certainly warmer than that of his 10-year-old sister, which is usually like ice.
Emily says that she is more of an air conditioner, but then she is also happy to swim in the Gulf of Maine when others have retreated to their towels after a brief plunge.
One of the tricks for staying warm when winter camping is to drink hot buttered cocoa (sadly, not with rum) and let your body burn through that fat as you sleep.
Another is to dress in layers. While I shovel snow, I wear just gloves, a sweater and a furry Russian ushanka or “eared hat” for outerwear, but afterward need to add something impervious to wind to keep from getting chilled.
During the blizzard just after Christmas, I saw gray squirrels popping in and out of holes in the snow drifts, and birds all fluffed up at the feeder. The metabolism of a chickadee in winter allows it to eat 10 percent of its body weight in fat alone and burn it away at night. It will also lower its body temperature when roosting by close to 18 degrees Fahrenheit to conserve heat.
The contrast of indoor heating and a howling wind outside makes reading something like Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” an almost visceral experience. Perhaps you remember being assigned this story in English class: “There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at 50 below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than 50 below—how much colder he did not know.”
That image of spit that froze before it hit the ground has always stayed with me. The coldest weather I have ever experienced was 32 below and that was insanely cold.
Perhaps one of these frosty nights I will stamp the snow down and build a small fire. I will feed the small flames with bits of dry stuff and shield them from the wind. I will put my three-legged pot to boil and roast sausages on a skillet, and feel the heat of the fire on my face and the frozen night air at my back. The woodsmoke will mingle with the Milky Way and the owls will call from the pines as they prepare to mate. It will be a little touch of the wild in my own backyard, a reminder of the give and take of fire and ice.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.
© Copyright 2011 by TCExtra.com
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