Winter Light, and The Uses of Cold
Now it is Winter Light. (Light as in illumination, not as in intensity or calories, like those dreaded Lite yogurts or Lite beers….)
Here on the edge of the taiga I think of the year as divided into five seasons. November through January are “Winter Dark” and February through April are “Winter Light.” The months of May and June are Spring, July and August are Summer, and September and October are Fall.
Winter Dark and Winter Light are as different as night and day. On February 1st we now have usable daylight (including our long twilights) from before 9 a.m. to past 6 p.m., and we are gaining nearly 6 minutes a day. Bring it on! And it has been milder here these past few weeks. Instead of 40 below and lower, the temperatures have been in the 20 to 30 below range through much of January (all of this in degrees C. for those south of the border.) Easier on the woodpile, easier on the dogs and just easier on everything. -20 C. is the perfect winter temperature, to my way of thinking. Just below zero degrees F. The snow is still dry and squeaky, but it has some glide in it for sleds and skis, and the dogs find it perfect for flat-out effort without overheating. Plus there is nothing like a blast of 40-some below to make minus twenty feel like swimsuit weather.
This winter I have been musing about the Uses of Cold, for lack of a better title. Several things prompted this. In the much ballyhooed onslaught of deep cold back in December, I was in town for a few nights doing a flying job with a grad student studying wolves. As usual, on those working days far from home, I was eating my high-octane urban bachelor diet, one of the main components of which is pizza. Pizza being one of Nature’s perfect foods (dairy, grain, meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit — the only major food groups missing are beer, coffee and ice cream which must be taken as additional supplements) and perfect for leftover use as lunch food in the plane, I was stocking up at the downtown grocery store in Yellowknife. There was a special discount price on one brand of frozen “grease wheels” as another pilot friend aptly names pizza. As I checked out with my pizzas and other essentials (alas, the draconian liquor laws of the NWT still prevent the sale of beer in grocery stores, as contrasted to more civilized places like Denmark and Wisconsin), the lady at the till remarked — “oh isn’t that a great price on those pizzas? I just wish I had more room in my freezer at home so I could stock up.”
I looked back at her, perplexed, and then started to chuckle. I said “Well, do you have a car with a trunk? It’s 42 flippin’ degrees below zero out there!” At first she didn’t get my drift, but then she realized what I was suggesting. When the entire outdoor world has become a deep freeze, surely there are at least a few positive ways to put that to use. This got me thinking again a week or two later, when the power outages down in the Maritimes and Ontario began making national news. The electricity demands of people trying to keep warm, with everything from block heaters on vehicles to electric blankets to baseboard and space heaters in rooms, had put the grid past overload, into blackout. Yet meanwhile, in almost every one of those houses, an energy-sucking chest freezer or upright fridge-freezer was merrily humming away. As anyone who has lived off the grid with home-made power like solar, wind, and generators can attest, the two things that really zap a power supply are making something warm (heaters) and keeping something cool (fridges and freezers.) Lights, fans, computers, stereos, and even most small power tools pale by comparison.
In November, usually about the 10th or 15th, there comes a much-anticipated day when we decide it is safe to turn our freezer into a fridge. Out everything comes, and into wooden boxes and steel chests and plastic coolers on the porch and behind the house. The “big freezer” is on for the winter, and we will count on it until sometime in late April, in this climate. The small 12-volt chest freezer then becomes our fridge for the winter, but it is happily disconnected from the battery bank all winter. There is just a daily or every-second-day rotation of plastic water jugs filled with lake water, back and forth from the front porch to the fridge. Takes a few seconds a day, but the fridge is now an ice-box, in the old-fashioned use of the word, and using not a single watt. This is one of those great trade-offs that work in our favor, because the freezer takes the output of several 75-watt solar panels, whose output has dropped to essentially zero with the onset of Winter Dark, by the time we can turn the freezer off.
Now I know as I type that no one in this busy urban age can be bothered to keep their frozen and perishable foods outdoors in winter, and make some practical, money-saving, environmentally friendly use of all that wonderful free cold-ness which the season delivers to our doorsteps free of charge. Or to unplug the fridge and turn it into an ice-box, rotating a couple frozen jugs of water in and out to the back porch. And I know too that one of the wonderful things about our deep cold here is its consistency, which is not so predictable farther south. That consistency makes an approach like ours workable. We simply do not see temperatures above freezing or even anywhere near the freezing mark for 4 months straight.
When electricity rates rise to reflect the real planetary cost of those amps and watts,, this practice won’t seem so much like something from the lunatic fringe. And when that day comes they will not be marketing refrigerators like the one I heard about recently, which feature a little butter warming compartment inside — so you can put the butter in the fridge where it belongs, and still keep it warm. Huh?
All I am saying is hey, think of some way to put the cold to use — it is there for the taking. With the money you save you can go to the local indoor pool for a February dip, or go hear Al Gore speak on global warming.
And Happy “Winter Light” to all.