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.