At the end of a winter transformation

PHOTO: Katy Daly, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

It’s been cold in northern Minnesota these last couple weeks. Not really record-breaking, so much as record-nearing. Kind of like running fast enough to read the number on Usain Bolt. Not the fastest, but still fast. 

You might ask how it is that anyone or anything survives when the temperature hits 40 below, a cold so universal that it’s the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit. For instance, I often think about the deer we see around our property. Each day they patrol the trails for food and shelter. 

How does a deer with a simple coat of fur survive months of such temperatures with so little available food? 

It’s a remarkable trick of nature, one that humans have had the luxury of forgetting long ago. The answer is that the deer becomes a slightly different creature in the winter. It grows a thick grey coat, with denser fur, to keep its core body temperature up. Inside the animal, a deer’s stomach literally reconstitutes itself, adjusting to digest less optimal foods like tree bark and whatever we throw in the compost pile. I like to think winter deer could run on old shoes, though I don’t know if any of them have tried that.

Also, think about the black-capped chickadee. This tiny little bird has a heart rate of 520 beats per minute. It weighs about 12 grams. For perspective, that’s about as much as a AAA battery or two and a half sheets of printer paper, not quite as much as a CD. I’ve listened to recordings of the beating heart of a chickadee and it literally sounds like a helicopter. How any biological organ can run so intensely without destroying itself is another of nature’s mysteries.

My son Henry, the family birder, got a squirrel proof bird feeder for Christmas. It’s worked well, but those chickadees empty it every single day. Chickadees need so many calories to keep that tiny little heart going that they must eat constantly to survive. The stiff wind that blows into my office when Henry goes out to refill the feeder convinces me that these birds deserve all the seed we can afford.

The legs of a chickadee are so thin that they actually have little to no feeling, which is why the birds can comfortably flit about the bare branches of a tree in a February cold snap. Everything with feeling is covered by the foofy feathers of a highly efficient winter bird.

If deer and birds become different creatures in the winter, so do we. Our survival is less physically demanding, to be sure. After all, we have comfortable sweaters to wear over several layers of highly-forgiving foundational clothing. We don’t have to eat a steady diet of dairy and carbohydrates to live. We choose to. Mostly because the comforts of food and family sustain us through the occasional isolation and lingering darkness of an emotional winter.

Soon, though, we begin anew. 

Indeed, we are at the end of our great transformation. We may gaze down at our protruding bellies. Or perhaps at the swimsuit in our drawer that represents nothing more than a furtive prayer to an absent god. But every completed transition brings the beginning of new change. 

Come spring, the deer again change their coats, from grey back to a reddish brown. Their digestive systems retool for large quantities of greens, which allows them to bulk up, rear fawns, and otherwise frolic in the figurative meadows.

Chickadees, when they finally feel full, begin to sing of love. 

We, too, have reached the end of our transformation. What we’ve become is not what what we will be when the sun rises hot in the midsummer sky. This knowledge is how we survive winter, even the coldest winters of our imagination.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. David Kannas says

    Although I no longer live in the extremes that Northern Minnesota offers up as a test to those who do, I still have vivid memories of what you describe here. Attending school even with temperature in the minus forties, snow that closes down the city where I now live, and clothes that didn’t offer the insulation that modern fabrics do didn’t seem to stop usl back then. Would I welcome those days or return to Northern Minnesota in an attempt to relive those days? Not only no, but hell no.

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