The Full-on-ness (and frozen frogs) of February

So long February.  It’s been real. I guess I am not going to see Pollux set behind the northwest ridge.  Every clear morning lately I have sought him out, if the timing was right, from my lookout perch, a little cubicle that juts up from the roof of our house. I’ve been wondering whether that one star will still be visible, from this spot on the planet, when it touches the ridge-top horizon, or whether the steadily mounting wash of dawn, banishing the night stars earlier every day, will overtake it.  It looks like that is what is going to happen.

Here we have had long steady weeks of calm weather, cold and ringing clear as a bell on every quadrant, the smoke rising straight up from the chimneys into azure sky and sunshine. Not a breath of wind for days at a stretch. Ten days ago I saw a first tentative icicle on the brink of a south-facing eave, along a dark roof edge facing south. Out cutting and hauling wood that day, I stripped to just a wool t-shirt on top, but still in heavy double trousers over longjohns and with my mittens still on.  Our daylight gain is a solid six minutes every day now, which comes to nearly three hours over the month.  The snow, which is deeper than we have had here for decades, lies pillow-soft across the curves of the land, and stretches away in rolling wind-hardened drifts on the lakes. Travel away from any broken trail now demands some serious perseverance. Bring snowshoes, the big no-nonsense kind.

A phrase came into my mind the other day: “the fullness of February.” It stuck.  I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with my appreciation of this month, and its character. Winter, pure and simple. I love this fullness of February. Or maybe, in the current jargon, what I really love is the “full-on-ness” of February. February makes no apologies, does not negotiate, offers and accepts no excuses. It takes no prisoners. It says, “Okay, listen up. If you slip up or screw up too badly, on the wrong day, too far from fire or shelter or assistance, you are dead meat, pal. You got that?”

Like January, February holds no Solstice or Equinox or change of season, but this second month of deepest winter is much more lovable than its predecessor.  February is the mirror image of August, which is, I think, the best month of summer.  Because both February and August still manage to tease us with a few subtle foreshadowings, little hints of what lies ahead.

In August I love the return of stars to the night sky, the return of some cool darkness after the sometimes-wearisome non-stop sunlight of June and July.  The demise of the mosquitoes is welcome too, of course, and the faltering of the very hottest afternoons. And now, in the fullness of February, I love the inertia, the certainty –especially amidst so much uncertainty – of that unstoppable accretion of daylight. If that were to falter, well, all our other worries would look a little trivial by comparison.

This morning Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, were fading fast as the northwest horizon loomed up toward them. The dawning of the day over in the eastern sky is washing them out. Week by week they are saying goodbye, and soon it will be time for some new star companions, if I happen to rise early enough to see any stars at all. That will require some very early risings in the months ahead. So long, twin brothers, it’s been pleasant having morning coffee with you.

The last day of the month is clear, calm, and cold again. The electronic thermometer is stuck at -41.4, where it gives up and refuses to read any lower. It is colder than that, for sure, somewhere down in what we lately have been calling the “surface-of-Mars realm.” (Just to be clear, I am no fan of forty and fifty below zero, except as a sort of occasional chin-up bar test, with the ensuing slightly-weird northern bragging rights. Yep, still okay. Now can we be finished with that again, please?)  

I woke up thinking, oddly enough, about the wood frogs. Northernmost and “alpine-most” amphibians in the world.  We see them every summer, in July and August, on the warmest days, down along the little creek below the workshop. Delicate moist mottled skin, tiny dark eyes that must have been the inspiration for “beady-eyed,” exquisitely formed limbs ending in tiny finger pads. Every time I see one, I cannot help but think of February. Strange, I know.  Right now, as nautical twilight eases to civil twilight and another frigid day dawns, the frogs of summer are down there, somehow, beneath those deep white snowdrifts, down near the line where creek-ice bonds with creek-mud, and they are somehow suspended in a state of being that no one can fathom, or fully explain.  And alive.  Yes, just biding their time. See you on the flip side, guys, if we all should be so lucky. I’ll be walking the beach on a hot August afternoon, pulling up a canoe or heading down to swim.  Ribbet, ribbet.  Oh, there you are.

In Sharon Chester’s superb book The Arctic Guide, I read this:

“Frogs of the Far North have adapted to the arctic climate in a remarkable way – they freeze solid in winter and thaw out in spring. As winter approaches, each frog makes a shallow depression in leaf litter and places dead vegetation over the hollow for insulation. As soon as the frog’s skin touches an ice crystal, solid ice envelops the body cavity, bladder, and subcutaneous tissues. The frog stops breathing, its heart stops beating, its blood stops flowing, and it cannot move. Only the vital organs remain unfrozen, this due to high concentrations of glucose and urea that accumulate in its tissues in summer.  Both act as cryoprotectants, which limit ice formation and reduce osmotic shrinkage of cells. When the soil warms in spring the frog’s frozen parts thaw, its heart and lungs resume activity, and in a few hours, the frog can jump and mate.”

The deep torpor of my fellow mammals I can almost imagine.  The slumbering bears and marmots, the thick fur, the humid funky-smelling dens, the heart and body functions slowed… weeks and months passing. But these frogs with that paper-thin moist skin, those tiny naked finger-pads, are something else entirely.  They are cool to the touch even on an August day whenever the sun slips behind clouds, the wind gets up, and a few small birches are showing a yellow leaf or two.

Now, somewhere down in that frozen muck, the wood frogs are akin to interstellar astronauts on some fantastic future voyage, sequestered and somehow pickled in liquid nitrogen preservatives as they prove out Einstein and grow younger with each passing light-year, hurtling across the cosmos to take a peek at the far side of Castor or Pollux.

How would it feel to wake up from such a state, to regain, moment by moment, tiny hints of movement and breath and consciousness?  I can only imagine. Except that I can’t. Come August, and my next lucky glimpse of a wood frog, I know I will think back to February.  I will stand there barefoot on hot sand, evening sun on my warm brown shoulders, and I will probably just sigh and shake my head, dumbfounded yet again.

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