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