18 June 2009

The Ice Man

Pohangina valley evening
Dawn comes like the realisation of youth fading; a gradual awareness that options have begun to diminish. Soon one must step out into the cold. The thermometer registers a single degree[1]inside the house; condensation on every window has frozen solid; through lightly textured ice the outside world appears as indefinite as last night's dreams. Trees, the shed next door, a line of hills beneath a salmon-tinged sky: all have become vague forms in colour, ill-defined, beautiful, approximating the abstract. I open the kitchen door and step outside to empty the teapot and frost crunches on the verandah beneath my feet, white frost covers the paddock save for dull green patches where the sheep have been lying. A line of footprints connects one such patch with a grazing sheep and I wonder — does grass taste different when it's frozen?
A long-sleeved thermal top, then two layers of fleece and a down jacket; fleece pants over long johns; a balaclava as a neck muff; fingerless mittens and it's still hardly enough. I drink tea as hot as I can without burning my tongue and begin to warm up. I'm not built for the cold. Sometimes I think so little meat covers my bones I could uncontentiously be included in a vegetarian diet. I find winter hard, and every winter seems harder than the last. I remember how, long ago, I used to cycle all year round in shorts, when frosts regularly touched six or seven degrees below zero and we had plenty of those every winter; now, decades later, frosts as hard as that come once or twice a winter or never, and if now I biked in shorts in frosts like that, my knees, I'm sure, would seize as their synovial fluid thickened and turned to ice. If ever I was built for the cold, now I'm not.

In winter I'm torn between the desire to hunker down in what warm refuges I can find (right now I'm writing in the city library) and the urge to leave the cold, to travel to where it's warm. I dream of Gujarat, where at times I could hardly bear the heat; Kileshwar, where sometimes even a thin silk sleeping bag liner was too hot and I slept with the warm wind rattling the window shutters and a bat flew around the room and a rat ate my ayurvedic soap; where peafowl screamed and dogs barked and I lay awake listening for the coughing of the leopard that a few weeks earlier had been seen prowling past the compound. In this winter the idea of heat like that is almost unimaginable, even if the rat isn't: I'm reminded of it every time I hear the Rat of the Baskervilles galloping across the uninsulated ceiling or gnawing in the walls (also uninsulated), and apparently preferring wood (not, I trust, electrical cable) to the generously offered sachets of poison bait lying untouched out the back.

No, I'm not built for winter, what with its aching cold and unwelcome fauna — big queen wasps are entering hibernation in the walls, too; I heard them buzzing regularly as they warmed down for hibernation until Trev did for them with a generous application of blowfly-strike powder puffed through a gap into the wall — and with its threats of pestilence (swine flu has just begun its exponential proliferation in Aotearoa) and chilblains (I have my first chilblain in decades) and unaffordable power bills. Sometimes I wonder how I'd survive in cold countries — really cold countries. The idea of polar and subpolar regions captivates me; I love the idea of loneliness and wild lives, huge seas breaking on desolate shores, whales and walruses, albatrosses and wheeling gulls, wind-carved rock and ice and the sun at midnight and all those histories of humans and the wildlife that preceded them and the stories of glaciers and storms and seas that reach forward from the unpredictable past to the increasingly constrained future. Frosted leaf But could I survive such cold? When I stepped from the warm library onto the street I felt as if the cold might claim me before I could reach the car, and the temperature hadn't even dropped to freezing.

Perhaps I'm going soft, or maybe I've always lacked the psychological as well as physical insulation to withstand real cold. I've never been even remotely in the same league as Antarctic explorer — and survivor — Douglas Mawson (although few, if any, were), or Charlie Douglas who over a century ago ran down from a South Westland mountain to find blizzard-blown snow packed like fat inside his shirt, around his belly. “There had not been enough heat in my carcase to melt it”, he'd said, and attributed his survival to never having considered the possibility of dying: “Nothing”, he said, “is as bad as terror for lowering a man's stamina”.[2] Me? If I had to face those conditions now, I'd end up as the distant future's equivalent of Ötzi the ice man — lasered from the ice by aliens impressed by my state of preservation and underdeveloped cerebral cortex.

No, I'm not built for winter. We haven't even reached the shortest day and our coldest, grimmest weather arrives after that — not an encouraging thought. But, if I do end up like Ötzi, maybe those aliens will find me and, with their advanced technology, thaw me out and restore me to life. I just hope it won't happen in the middle of winter.
Winter trees

1. All temperatures are in degrees Celsius (centigrade). One degree Celsius is about 34° Fahrenheit.
2. Pp. 141–142 in Langton G. 2000. Mr Explorer Douglas: John Pascoe's New Zealand Classic revised by Graham Langton. Christchurch, New Zealand, Canterbury University Press. 320 pp. ISBN 0-908812-95-7.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Evening on the southern Ruahine range, from Pohangina Valley East Road. Almost exactly one year ago.
2. Everything looked like this a few days ago.
3. Winter; leafless poplar, dead pine. No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and text © 2009 Pete McGregor


Lydia said...

Ah, this is so very lovely...the writing and the photographs. I especially am drawn to Frostleaf. It seems so strange that you are beginning your winter there and soon our summer will be upon us. I had three neighbor boys mow the lawn today. I need to fertilize the roses that I failed to prune in February. The dogs both need to go to the groomer to relieve them of all that fur. Summer activity is bearing down and I'm not ready for it yet.

I guess that's why it was such an escape to read this post, and to envision you writing it in a warm library with the sheep waiting for you at home. Very fine.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

I laughed when i read about the Rat of the Baskervilles - very clever literary illusion and gave me a clear image.

Bit of a stretch this - but scenes of ice and frost always make me think of the Iron Maiden song "Stranger In A Strange Land" which is all about that Otzi chap (or so i believe)

Ranulf Feinnes, the UK explorer who single-handedly walks to the south pole every time he needs to catch a bus (or so it seems), has gone on record of saying that the conditions are so extreme that even your best mate can become your worst enemy in the cold.

Again - your writing is just so damned good that there's really nothing i can add.


Brenda Schmidt said...

Warmest wishes to you, Pete! :)

isabelita said...

Whew. We have already paid our wintry dues up here in Seattle, so it's jarring to read of your journey into the opposite season.
We have logged 30 days without measurable precipitation, at least out at the aiport, and they have been dreamy warm days.
So I hope your dreams are warm...

Anne-Marie said...

You dream of India; I dream of northern Queensland...

This has been a particularly difficult winter - and officially we're less than three weeks in to it. Hard frost after hard frost, and my sleep is disturbed because I can't get warm.

You do make a hard winter sound poetic though :-)

Time for another cup of tea.

[Word verification: gasper. That's me when the cold air hits me!]

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, you say you're not yet ready for the summer activities, but I'm not ready for those of winter. I doubt I ever will be, and somehow the consequences seem more dire. But I'm glad you enjoyed the thought of taking refuge from the cold, and that thought warms me a little. Thanks :^)

Hungry pixies, wasn't Fiennes the one who had a heart attack then went on to climb Everest or something? Maybe he's more in the Mawson/Douglas mould, despite (inevitably) belonging to the Goretex and GPS brigade. Also, I'm trying to remember whether I've ever listened to any Iron Maiden. Maybe inadvertently. Oh well, now I have a reason — thanks! And thanks for the kind words about the writing; I'm honoured. Cheers!

Brenda, thanks! I guess zero is positively tropical for you, much of the year... ;^)

Isabelita — ah, dreamy warm days... I dream of them. Lovely, sun-warmed rock to climb...

Anne-Marie, northern Queensland would be more than acceptable. Let me know when you've booked my ticket! And if the word verification was working, I'm sure mine would be "whimper". Or maybe "wimper".

Lydia said...

Oh, I too think the consequences are more dire in not being ready for winter than for summer, most definitely. So be prepared, hunker down, and take good care.

robin andrea said...

Ah Pete, a fellow chilblains sufferer, yes I understand the physical body's resistance to those frozen temps. I read some of those arctic blogs, admire them immensely, and wonder if I might have been made of hardier stuff had I been born at such crazy latitudes. I'm not much for the cold, although I would take all the brilliantly frozen, blue-sky days I could get over months-long cloudiness and temps hovering just above freezing.

Come to California. The air is lovely and a gentle breeze fans the flowers and the waves.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Lydia, will do.

robin andrea, I know those days too well; those days of grey, damp skies and cold that seems to get right into the bones. It's like that now. My mum used to call them "raw" days and I think I've inherited her aversion to them. California sounds beautiful — but a long and expensive way away from here.

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Pete

Perhaps we could do a swap? It's 34 oC outside today and I have just had a long swim. I sweat all day long in Indonesia and long for the cold. I am returning to NZ next month to soak in the cold.
Wonderful evocative writing Pete.


pohanginapete said...

Bob, if you're looking for the cold, there's more than enough here. You'll love it. And I'd more than happily swap.


butuki said...

Here, the rainy season with its poofty blorms of produlating hu..hu...humidity has gotten well on its way, and the large blooms of sweat fan out from my armpits onto my work shirts like the Mississippi Delta. I wipe my brow and three seconds later my forehead is percolating again. And THAT'S just the beginning! In a month I'll be typing with my wrists glued to the tabletop, my feet swelling from water retention from deinking too much water while just the mere act of sipping another sip of tea causes all the pores in my body to overflow the banks and cause general mayhem throughout the colony. That's not including the mosquitoes, the black flies, the bald-faced hornets, the sexually starved men hanging out in the parks, and Godzilla with a heat rash!

I LOVED The Rat of the Baskervilles! We've got a humongous jungle crow that refuses to budge from our balcony rail, that I still have to give a name to: Balrog??? Certainly don't want to get near him! He's smarter than I am!

Still trying to figure out if my word verification "keectadv" can actually be twisted to mean something...

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, it definitely sounds as if that heat's getting to you... ;^) Your description sounds like Ghana; in particular the time I walked inland from the coast a little way and within minutes was running with perspiration. Oh for heat like that...

Those crows are great. They'll outlast us, I'm sure.

BTW, the magazine with the Tove Jansson illustrations and photos arrived yesterday — thanks so much! A lot there I'd never seen before, and it's great to see some of those illustrations at a decent size. Now, I just need to learn Japanese so I can read the article...

Michael said...

I'm so with you. Even in the summer (it's still a brisk 10° C in the morning), I dream of warmer places. But then, I shake it off, layer up, and go on. (However, I still favour the sunny side of the street.)

That said, my house is insulated and natural gas fires the furnace. What you describe sounds like camping!

pohanginapete said...

Michael, I remember your photos from your last winter, and how I thought at the time I wouldn't cope well with that kind of cold. But that's a good point about the house: NZ is notorious for having houses that aren't suitable for our conditions. The Green Party negotiated an agreement with the previous Government for a billion dollar programme to subsidise home insulation; the National Party, then in opposition, ridiculed it and after winning the election, axed the programme (unbelievable!) only to turn around and introduce their own version of the same programme — again, thanks in large part to the Green's co-operative negotiating skills. So, things will improve for many NZers, but as I rent this place it'll do nothing for me. It really is like camping: some of our mountain huts are much warmer.

Avus said...

Cycling shorts in winter - I remember those, Pete. Extra layers in winter are a more contemporary experience though (and still feel the cold). In my case it is called the "passing of the years", but you have some way to go my friend!
I have a "mature" friend who has recently taken up residence in NZ (Christchurch area) and he comments that the cold seems so much worse than in Britain as the houses just do not have any insulation. your essay confirms this.

pohanginapete said...

Ah, I don't know, Avus — the years seem to be passing mighty fast. Nevertheless, I believe it's important to keep cycling. It's one of the few forms of exercise that really does seem sustainable well into old age. I'm always impressed when I see really ancient-looking, wrinkly, weather-beaten guys out there, cycling. Mind you, they might just be 30-year-olds who look that way because of all the cycling ;^)

20th Century Woman said...

I am late arriving here, new to your blog. Wonderful writing.

I was interested in your thoughts of the far north. My husband and I arrived at our cabin in interior Alaska on April 1. The temperature was 15 below, F (Americans are backward and don't do centigrade or meters). The snow was hip deep. We had to shovel our way up the long driveway to our house. I was dressed for the occasion, and by the time we got to the house I was sweating.

The coldest I can ever remember being was 64 years ago in my grandmother's unheated house in Auckland. It was early September and the temperature inside and out was the same, about 40 F. I had a sweater (cardigan). School boys were running around the streets in shorts and bare feet. I was a 13 year old American kid who had grown up in central heating. I thought I would freeze.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

:-) your story and pics made me shiver in a good way Pete! Yep, its winter in the Sthn Hemis - and it seems to be true that us kiwi's are SO determined to believe we live in a tropical paradise that we exist in denial, shivering and shaking, all winter wondering in the heck hit us...and thinking "it'll be spring soon...". An incorrigible positive attitude? Not sure if thats the case or not, but it sure is a wierd head space to live amongst. Chill-blains - yechh! - reminds me of my childhood years in Central Otago. They were practically a fact of life back then....aged six, tottering over the TOPS of the blades of grass, frozen solid overnight. Those memories will always be with me. Thanks for the journey, Pete - sending warmness via thought energy!!! :-)

pohanginapete said...

20th Century Woman — welcome, and thank you :^) It's interesting, but sometimes it seems warmer (well, less cold) when the ground's covered in snow. Maybe, seeing the characteristic feature of extreme cold — snow — we dress more appropriately and take better measures to protect ourselves from it? Here in the Pohangina valley, snow's rare (except on the adjacent Ruahine Range), and it's often the case that I have to feel cold to be truly aware it's actually cold, and by then it's too late. I don't know if that really makes sense, but in short, perhaps New Zealanders are generally ill-prepared for the cold because in most regions it doesn't get cold enough? But as your snow-shovelling experience indicates, exercise is certainly great for warming up.

KSG, thanks for the warm thoughts :^) It's pretty miserable weather here right now, but at least I have a new down jacket (half price sale) so I've been managing better than I was during that recent spell. And, I heard on the news this evening that apparently this June just gone was the coldest since the 1970s, so maybe I'm not as much of a wimp as I thought. But Central Otago — that'd finish me off, I think, although at least it's spectacular in those winter conditions. Damp, soggy, bone-chilling cold's the worst; crisp dry cold — apparently typical of Central Otago — seems easier to bear. As for thinking "It'll be spring soon": I cling to that hope ;^)

Celeste Maia said...

Beautiful blog and stunning photographs! I live in Spain where it is 40 C right now, it is like being on fire, how I long for some of your cold...and I am from Mozambique!
I traveled 3,000 kms in Patagonia last Januray, that vastness and wildness and a wind so strong and constant it blows the few trees into the shape of flags. It was summer there, but it was freezing cold and I loved it.
I just started blogging a month ago, if you feel like it come "viisit" my world.

Maureen said...

Pete, I found it difficult to read about wearing a thermal top, two layers of fleece and down! Lucky me I migrate to avoid such a thing. My focus now is summertime fun. This involves inflatable kayaks, minimal apparel mainly comprised of shorts, tank top and Keens; and throwing all worries to the wind.

Please don't end up like Otzi!

pohanginapete said...

Celeste, welcome to the world of blogging. I'll look forward to hearing about your travels, and perhaps reading about all that wonderful warm weather will help me believe it's not far off. But Patagonia — ah, of all the places I haven't been, that's one of the most special. The weather's legendary for its viciousness, but the rewards, I trust, must be marvellous.

Maureen, I suspect I'm essentially migratory too, although here in Aotearoa the ability to migrate's limited for those who can't afford to fly. Cycling across the Tasman would be quite a feat ;^) I suppose I'd eventually miss the cold, but it'd take a lot to make me long for it. Shorts, a light shirt and jandals — yes, I agree. Life's too important to worry about mere survival.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
As I wrote recently on a comment to Anne-Marie, you are more than welcome to always drop in for a cuppa and a sit down by the wood fire!
I had an interesting debate with a friend of mine whom I grew up in Wisconsin with about cold. We were on the porch at Maropea Forks and he mentioned our snowy icy winters back in Wisconsin. He got a bit testy when I put forth my belief that winters here in my new home are actually colder. Not in temperature, but in that damp bone chilling cold. I never felt the cold like that in the drier colder temperatures. I suppose it also has something to do with we approach the concept of home heating and insulation here in NZ. In any case hope you have a warm cuppa in hand and the sun is shining.

pohanginapete said...

Robb, thanks for the invitation — that alone warms me. Pretty savage winds outside right now, but at least it's not as cold as it has been recently.

I think you're right about the damp. Dry cold's one thing, but damp cold seems to get further in: right into the marrow.

Robin Easton said...

Such a lovely site, both photos and words. I came here from my dear friend Robb Kloss' site. I see several people I know here, and I can see why they come. Your work is honest and beautiful. There is a stark beauty like that of Nature itself, which you have captured with your camera and expressed with your words. I've added you to my RSS feed. thank you, Robin

pohanginapete said...

Robin, thank you for the generous comment — good to see you here. It's great to see a kind of community building around a shared love of the Ruahine, among other things. As for the RSS feed: I'm working on something that should mean you'll have a new entry appearing in your feed reader soon :^)

jacqueline b said...

afraid i have nothing philosophical to say about cold weather. I have always FELT it. Growing up in Wellington, I didn't realise till later that there were places where you never had to clench your body shut and muffle it in layers of clothes, or huddle. I've since, through circumstances lived in other places with long bitter winters, and almost indistinguishable summers. But now, having finally made the break, i can only say to someone who feels the cold - move! not suffering has its advantages.

pohanginapete said...

Jacq, that's very tempting advice. I remember being in swelteringly hot places overseas — places like Gujarat, with its tremendous but dry heat (at least when I was there) and Ghana, which was often like a sauna — but I don't recall ever getting to the end-of-the-tether, near frantic kind of despair I've had on a few occasions this winter. Even in the Himalaya, in the snow, it didn't seem as desperately cold as here. Psychological, perhaps, but real nevertheless.

At least it's mostly over now — until next winter.

Good to hear from you.