Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Feeling the bite of winter's bone

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It is currently -2 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago. Out in the 14 mph wind, it feels like -22.

At times like these, I always find myself thinking of Thoreau. Has anyone ever reveled in the cold like he does in his journals? His entry for January 7, 1856 is fairly matter-of-fact in its treatment of the cold:
At breakfast time the thermometer stood at -12 degrees. Earlier it was probably much lower. Smith's was at -24 early this morning. The latches are white with frost at noon. They say there was yet more snow at Boston, two feet even.
Straightforward, but that detail about the latches just chills you to the bone, doesn't it?

Things were milder by the 10th:
The weather has considerably moderated; -2 degrees at breakfast time, but this has been the coldest night probably. You lie with your feet or legs curled up, waiting for morning, the sheets shining with frost about your mouth. Water left by the stove is frozen thickly, and what you sprinkle in bathing falls on the floor ice. The house plants are all frozen and soon droop and turn black. I look out on the roof of a cottage covered a foot deep with snow, wondering how the poor children in its garret, with their few rags, contrive to keep their toes warm. I mark the white smoke from its chimney, whose contracted wreaths are soon dissipated in this stinging air, and think of the size of their wood-pile, and again I try to realize how they panted for a breath of cool air those sultry nights last summer. Realize it now if you can. Recall the hum of the mosquito.
What strikes you in that passage is its simple noticing: shivering, Thoreau nonetheless attends to detail.

I've never had to live with indoor cold quite like what he's describing, but his description of frost-rimed sheets does raise a chilly memory from late December 1996, as London endured what we were told at the time was its coldest stretch in history. (Let's be clear that it wasn't that cold, folks: Blitz aside, you Londoners are wimps.) The pipes supplying the semi-squalid travelers' house in Neasden where I was renting a room froze and broke, soaking the epidemiological minefield that was the living room carpet and knocking out the power--and heat. A flame-spitting hallway Salamander was better than what kings could have expected in medieval times, but the air upstairs was nonetheless bounteous in cold. It felt like nothing so much as walking through physical curtains of cold, or a host of ghostly presences, each caressing your face with a searingly lifeless finger. And when you got into bed, fully dressed, you could never quite shake the feeling that the sheets were icily damp.

Tomorrow, as I walk the mile to the L, I'll try to keep in mind Thoreau's enthusiasm, from later in that day's entry:
I love to wade and flounder through the swamp now, these bitter cold days when the snow lies deep on the ground, and I need travel but little way from the town to get to a Nova Zembla solitude.
Like Thoreau, I love my solitude, but I'll confess to preferring the version I have right now: sitting in my warm, if drafty library, blankets and lap cats close to hand.

Bundle up, folks.

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