On cold times in cold places

PHOTO: Espie, Flickr CC

You’re thinking about how the cold feels. The multi-dimensional knife in your skin and lungs. The way your inner heat seems threatened. You’re a candle that can blow out.

But note the dual nature of sound in the cold, the cracks and pops of trees and frozen lakes, surrounded by near-total silence.

Your nose is too cold to smell much more than car exhaust. And everything looks the same as usual, except for the heat distortion that emanates from your body, an aura of life in air that might kill you.

The cold chills all senses. Our minds, if we let it.

This might be the coldest day of the year, certainly when factoring in high winds. Ely pegged out at 70 below wind chill. The State of Minnesota is mostly closed.

Schools shut down yesterday and today. Even the community college where I work cancelled classes. Many stores and other businesses will be shuttered. The U.S. postman will miss his appointed rounds. The steel gates of the dump shall remain chained and locked. Even bars and liquor stores are closing. This is all highly unusual.

Not everything is closed, of course. The morgue, for instance. The hospitals and clinics. Cops and tow truck drivers patrol the icy roads, though certainly not happily.

It’s not as cold as it gets. Air temperatures descended to 36 below in Balsam Township this morning, about as cold as last weekend. But high winds add an element of danger and extreme discomfort to the equation. And cold spots like Tower spilled much lower, threatening longstanding state records.

Here we watch Minnesotans divide themselves into two groups.

The first group is here to tell you that we’ve gone soft. We didn’t have to close everything. Not back then, in the greatest times. We walked to school in 40 below. Everyone who’s alive now survived, so what’s the big deal? In fact, let’s go outside right now and just stand there. Some people will go inside and warm up. They’re weak. Let’s spend our lives resenting them. The warm people. Let’s heat ourselves with anger. Let’s burn forever with a white-hot, self-induced, entirely avoidable rage. 

Another group is here to announce that they’re glad everything closed. In fact, it’s an outrage that anything had to stay open. All discomfort is permanent. This is the worst thing that has ever happened, or so the memes infer. And yet, the sheer madness of this cold adds meaning to our lives. These are the end times, and we will live through them with all the grace and dignity that social media will allow. We fill the hole in our souls with tweets, watching them vaporize like hot water in the frigid winter air. Always empty. Never full. If this weather is significant then so are we. We are here. Notice us. 

In a practical sense, however, the cold unwraps a simple reality. Not only do we change our behaviors, but whole systems reorient themselves. 

For instance, I’d have to wade through the snow to dump my compost bin in the spot where the snow-covered compost pile is located. So I just dump it on the snowbank in the yard. I face no consequences for this because the deer eat everything I dump. Banana peels. Egg shells. Grape vines. They don’t care, so neither do I.

That logic carries forth in many ways across society. 

Earlier this month a grim picture revealed itself. A menagerie of frozen dead animals was found along a roadside outside Duluth. Just look:

PHOTO: Minnesota DNR

Yikes, right? It’s an image that projects unspeakable horror and also macabre humor. I mean, why would perfectly preserved bunny rabbits be found with jays, ducks and assorted other critters?

The answer came this week. These animals had been rehabilitating at a nearby wildlife shelter and died of natural causes. A volunteer tasked with disposing of the bodies in the woods made a poor choice. After all, it was cold. Windy. Why tromp all the way into the woods when nature can take its course right here, by the road?

Using the same logic I used in dumping my compost, this grim scene spilled out along a country highway in Northern Minnesota. The volunteer was cited for littering.

And yet, this cold is unprecedented only in our reactions. Sustained temperatures below -40 kills parasites and invasive species like the emerald ash borer and zebra mussels. It’s good for us. That is, if we can see beyond the puff of vapor that just left our mouths.

The cold does things to us, mostly to our minds. If we let it. 


  1. Micheal mac Fhiodhbhuidhe says

    Well said. Like London’s “To Build a Fire,” we need to keep our focus and not let this force us into bad ways.

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