With this year’s paucity of cold and snow in southern Vermont, I’ve had to adjust my tactics for winter survival. As Bernd Heinrich explains in Winter World: The Ingenuity Of Animal Survival, “A large part of adapting to the winter world involves creating a suitable microclimate” (55), so instead of skiing, snow-shoeing, and otherwise enjoying my favorite season of the year, I’m indulging in what Heinrich calls “adaptive torpor” to survive the cold: I’ve holed up by the fire with his wonderful book, reading about the strategies developed by chipmunks, cross-billed finches, and weasels to make it till spring.
In addition to a woodstove, my microclimate includes a sofa, a good lamp,
and a table on which to rest my hot drink. Lately, this has been a lump of candied ginger steeped in boiling water. As Heinrich observes, “Torpid animals don’t eat.”
Another reason I love winter is that indulging in winter sports requires extra fuel; without the energy-burning exercise of winter sport, I’m on short rations.
I’d rather have an excuse to eat, but there’s nothing I can do about the weather, so I adapt. I wear crampons on my boots and walk on the glazed surface of the thin snow, making so much noise I see very little wildlife as I crunch through the woods. This old snow doesn’t reveal much, either: animal tracks have frozen and melted, as if the landscape were a piece of paper on which all the writing’s been erased.
Of course, there are benefits to this anemic winter weather: I’ve rarely had to shovel, and we’ve burned only a quarter of our wood. After an extended period of family visits, we escaped to Maine in search of new snow and old friends, skiing in Acadia National Park and celebrating a friend’s significant birthday. Life could be worse: As Heinrich explains, “Staying warm and alert does not necessarily guarantee survival for the individual” (54). He’s referring to chipmunks, who hunker down for the duration, holing up in well-stocked burrows, but who remain vulnerable to predatory weasels, nevertheless.
Dangers abound, even for those who escape winter by migrating to warmer climates. Sadly, today I learned of a colleague who was killed by a motorist while riding her bicycle in Arizona. Winter is tough.
Winter is especially tough without snow, that transformative marvel that washes the landscape white, records the drama of survival in animal tracks, allows us to walk on water in its solid state, and makes us ever so grateful for the comforts of home and hearth, a good book, and the time to read.
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