When I awoke at 5am I stoked the fire, wrapped up in a down quilt, and walked outside into the quiet cold. 32 below zero. Stars crisp and bright above me. My face stung. Snow squeaked beneath my footsteps – each frozen crystal grinding against the other. My body, though warm at that moment, sent clear messages to my brain that it would quickly expire if left out in this cold without protection and warmth.
I looked for signs of life. Saw fresh deer tracks woven through the conifers and tried to imagine how it would feel walking through three feet of snow in 30 below without mukluks, having only the branches of the spruce for shelter, and twigs and needles the best thing on the menu. Just looking at deer walking belly deep in the snow makes me shiver. It's hard to believe that the hollow hairs in their winter coat along with their downy underlayer of fur insulates the deer like my down quilt, keeping them warm at this temperature, but it's true.
Surviving winter is all about efficient energy expenditure. Deer as well as moose, elk, and most pack species, follow each other through the snow, taking turns breaking trail. Often they use the same trails over and over because the firm base they have set in the track spares them from “postholing” after each new snow, an activity which wastes precious energy.
Have you ever wondered how the heck deer's legs stay warm in deep snow? It's quite ingenious. It is called countercurrent heat exchange and enables the deer’s body to be 30 degrees warmer than its legs without adverse effect. The veins in deer’s legs lie against the arteries, which allows heat to be exchanged between the two – this enables the warmer arteries to heat up the colder blood in the veins as it returns from the feet. This exchange minimizes heat loss to the environment, maintains core body temperature, and prevents shock to the heart. Many other animals besides the hoofed ones are equipped with this energy-saving system – birds, whales, seals, fish, your dog, and other canine species are some examples.
Deer come running towards us whenever Juan cuts down a tree in winter. I'm serious. The deer love the horsehair lichen which hangs off the upper branches of the conifers and whenever Juan fires up the chainsaw they act like the Schwan Frozen Dinner truck is making a delivery just for them. They are so crazy for the lichen that they'll munch at the top branches while the chainsaw screeches 15 feet away as Juan cuts the trunk of the tree. According to Daniel Mathews, who wrote Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper, the most compelling and entertaining natural history book I've ever read, horsehair lichen is a digestive enzyme which helps the deer assimilate more nutrients from the twigs and needles they are forced to eat in the winter. The benefit they gain is one more way in which to optimize their energy expenditure.
While Juan and I were caretakers on a small lake we observed the flip side of winter's energy-sparing cycle with respect to deer. When the snows got deep on the surrounding hillsides, the deer migrated down the hills to the windswept snows of the lake and the mountain lions capitalized on that migration. Hunting deer on the lake used far less of the mountain lions' energies than hunting in the deep snows, enabling the lions to keep their families well fed. Predators only chase prey long enough for their efforts to balance out in the expense column. If it costs too much energy the predators will give up the chase.
Getting through winter looks entirely different for humans. We have our shelters that we must heat. We wear warm clothes. We eat more and work is how we pay for those essentials. It is easy to waste time and money but in the end our net energy output has to cover our needs. The way in which we accomplish that looks different for each one of us.
Being freelance artists, Juan and I are constantly creating the way in which we make our living. In fact, our lifestyle is yet another one of our art forms. So every winter when the wild critters meter out their energy in order to survive, we re-assess our trajectory to check how efficient and productive it has been. If last year's efforts setting tracks have led us to scarcity we must set different tracks.
As artists we need downtime first and foremost in which to create; it is equivalent to food on our scale of needs. And downtime is only possible when one's efforts produce the desired result with the least amount of effort. Just like the deer and mountain lions, we can't afford to expend too much energy to eat. Thus my recurrent theme - we tuck in winter. Tucking for us doesn't mean hiding out in a closet. It means getting quiet enough to sense whether a change in direction is needed. It means honing down our outward activities to gather enough energy to launch ourselves. It means Creating. Creating. Creating.
So winter's quiet is an important time for both Juan and me. Each year as winter approaches I hunger for it as one hungers for a rock to rest upon after hiking a long ways. I need to eat a snack, rest my muscles, ponder my surroundings and enjoy the wild view - the reason for my efforts in the first place.
So I wish for all of you the respite, reflection and rejuvenation that winter offers.
“Sit and listen to what the world has to say.” When I heard Buddhist teacher and author, Pema Chodron, say these words something deep inside me aligned.
In her meditation talks Pema suggests we sit quietly and try to create some space between our thoughts. Let our minds “soften” and become more “fluid.” Pema explains that though humans are hard-wired to think, thinking is not the only way to perceive or move through this life. We can feel, we can listen, we can be open. Rather than embracing “rock logic” we can embrace “water logic.” “There is so much more,” she encourages.
But we continue to interpret the world with only our minds. Regardless of humanity's amazing discoveries and inventions our thinking decisions continue to devastate our environment, exploit cultures, and incite wars. It seems especially crucial now that we open ourselves up to more compassionate ways in which to perceive and interact with our world.
But the technological overlay we have created has accelerated our lives. When time-management becomes a priority and the only way to get through our to-do list is to categorize, it’s hard to be aware of those broader aspects of our selves and to remain sensitive to others. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.
And that, my friends, is the very reason I love winter. My life slows down when the ground is covered with snow, the wood stove needs to be stoked every two hours, and I must scrape ice off my car as I warm it up. And then, of course, there's the endless shoveling!
The deliberateness of these tasks pulls me out of abstract thought and into physical reality. I become the mammal that I am – more in tune with my body and senses, more a part of each moment – and life feels simpler.
I have sought out nature my entire adult life. For me, it wasn't a choice, it was a necessity. I wintered with only canvas between me and the forest, a wood stove to warm me at night, and gathering wood with a bow saw to heat me during the day. After that I lived up a trail in a tiny cabin my former land partners and I built by hand. I heated and cooked with wood, had cold-running water and an outhouse. Now I live a more modern existence, so I need winter’s imposed simplicity even more.
When I heard Pema’s words, I realized that my urge to live on nature’s terms has been my attempt to “listen to what the world has to say.” To understand what life is and how to move through it. It has been the only way I knew how to do it. Nature’s rhythms atune me to the magic of life – to the spaces in between the lines of thought.
There are many ways to slow down and listen - being in nature is not a requirement nor is it an option for everyone. However we have to do it, my hope is that more of us will listen rather than think, and that in doing so we will figure out how to live on this planet with decency and an attitude of reciprocity.
Ten years ago snow storms in Montana rarely dropped wet snow, but now our storms are getting warmer and wetter, which is distressing on so many levels, not the least of which is the rising global temperature.
Wet snow was the norm where I used to live in Northern California. My cabin was at 3,500' on the side of a mountain in what is considered the Pacific Northwest Temperate Rainforest climate zone. The storms blew off the ocean and carried lots of moisture. A the beginning of a storm temperatures usually hovered just below freezing but by the end they reached into the upper 30s, turning the snow into a heavy, sluggish mass somewhat like drywall mud.
Since we traveled on foot by a trail system and not by roads, we were acutely aware of the nature of the snow and how it changed with even slight fluctuations in temperature, sun, or wind. After every fresh snowfall we had to break trail with our snowshoes from the car to our cabin, which lay 3/4 of a mile up the mountain. The deep, wet snows stuck to the tops of our snowshoes - remember my reference to drywall mud? - miserable!! - and every few feet we had to hit our snowshoes against a nearby tree to knock the snow off so we could keep moving!
But happily, once we tramped down a trail it hardened up so we could leave our snowshoes behind and hike up and down in our boots, a scenario which lasted until the warm spring weather. Then if we didn't wear snowshoes our hike was an aerobic post-holing fiasco, which was absolutely no fun with 50 pounds of groceries on our back!
One of my daughter, Mikaela's, and my favorite things to do was sled down the snowshoe trail when going to town. We got a long run out of it - most of the trail was downhill - I simply packed Mikaela, myself, and all our gear into the sled and off we flew!
One particular year the snows were relentless. In a single storm we got 7 feet! Our cabin was tiny - 16'x22', one level, without a loft, and close to the ground. A few days into the storm it looked like we lived in a marshmallow. The snow level had climbed halfway up the front windows, nearly covered the back ones, and the snow that slid off the metal roof reached the roofline completely covering the side windows.
We were safe and warm and had plenty of food and wood so we weren't worried. Since we homeschooled Mikaela we didn't have to get off the mountain, so we cozied up inside the cabin and played games, read books, made crafts, and baked cookies in our wood cookstove while the snows piled up around us. What became the issue was keeping the roof from caving in.
Every couple of hours I tromped outside to shovel the snow away from the eaves so the new snow could slide off the roof. At night the sound of the rafters creaking under the weight of the snow was my alarm clock, with alarm being the key word! Donning rubber boots and headlamp I climbed up onto the hard-packed snow beneath the roof and shoveled the new batch of snow away from the dripline. Luckily the pile beneath the eaves was so high it kept the snow from sliding off in one massive chunk so I never got buried. After shoveling a three-foot space between the roofline and the peak of the pile I tromped back inside and crawled into bed until the next rafter alarm woke me up. Mikaela slept peacefully throughout...
Being encased in snow was an exciting experience for a little girl who lived up a mountain. Talk about immersion! After the storm passed and the inevitable warm temperatures settled the snow, I dug a hole and set Mikaela in it so she could experience first hand just how deep it was. She was impressed but wanted out instantly.
Now I'm spoiled by Montana's mostly dry snow but am ever so grateful for the nearly two decades I lived a lifestyle that honed everything down into simple terms. I was still complicated inside myself, but my days were simple! Living off the grid, buying in bulk, growing a garden, heating with wood, paying in cash - no credit card, and driving a Honda Civic enabled three adults and one child to live on $8,000 a year in the 1980s. That's pretty impressive!
I love how the snow illuminates the ground in winter. Whether there's a moon out or not, nighttime just doesn't feel so dark with a layer of white on it. It draws me out for one more walk before I crawl into bed - one more chance to smell the cold and be part of the deep silence of the blanketed landscape.
When it's completely dark out and Lily has been under the impression that her day was done, she is so jazzed to see me grab my down parka off the hook, slip on my boots, hat, headlamp, and gloves and open the door. She wiggles her little butt and prances in the snow, looking back over her shoulder with her doggie smile and happy eyes. For Lily, there's just nothing like a night walk...
I always grab my bearspray - not for the bears who are sleeping during the winter cold, but for the cougars. And I tie a thick scarf around my neck figuring that if a cougar were to jump me from behind the way they do when making a kill, the thick scarf might keep its teeth from reaching my spinal cord. I take a ski pole too, to beat a cat off, but then again, that's all probably naive. If a cougar really wanted to eat me, it would have no trouble. Life's a crapshoot at best, so I walk into the night.
The scents left by passing animals slow Lily's pace and I pause while she investigates. This walk isn't just for me and besides, I like to keep her near me not only for my own sake, but for hers. She is only 34 pounds - bite-sized.
We follow the road, walking past neighbors who have already turned in for the night. An occasional porch light shines on the branches above us and casts a cone of white on the snowy road, a reading light glows through a window, but no one stirs. It is just Lily and me.
Years ago, when I used to live on my homestead, just shy of a mile up a trail, I did a lot of night walking. It was built in - the only way from here to there - the way we wanted our reality to be - so I miss it. After a day in town, my daughter and I used to park the car at the trailhead, load ourselves up with groceries and school books and such, strap on snowshoes then tromp through the night to our cabin. Loaded up it took us twenty-five minutes. As tired as we might have been or as bent out of shape as our daily interactions with the world may have made us, we inevitably slipped back into the calmness of the forest reality. Step by step my daughter and I reunited with the peaceful rhythm that we humans in developed countries have so effectively whittled away from our lives.
By having to hike in we intentionally inserted nature's frequency into every hour of our day so we wouldn't forget or get cut off from it. I don't really understand why we humans are inclined to separate ourselves from the rich and invigorating energy emanating off this planet, but we have a penchant for it - we build buildings and ride in cars, we watch TV and wear earbuds that stream constant sound into our brains in order to block out the world we have created. I don't do the TV or earbud thing but I no longer live up a trail and if I'm not paying attention, I can easily let the comfort of a warm house, hot running water, and electricity insulate me from the world of wind and snow and darkness.
I guess that's why I keep reconciling myself with my fear of the cougar. Night walking stretches me just past my comfort threshold and opens me up to something beautiful.
You can read my past posts at www.ihiketowrite.blogspot.com