Six below zero this morning. Hey winter, warm up! It's February, already! Oh well, I can't go out anyway. I had eye surgery yesterday and doctor says no hiking for a week or more. By then that sun should be a bit higher in the sky, and winter's edges will start to soften. How I love that sensory contrast, of still cold snow and bright warm sun. Exhilarating!
A few years ago I hiked out to the tip of Rippled Rocks, where the mid-February sun was beaming down on the snow-covered boulders, the chickadees in the surrounding hemlocks beginning their sweet spring songs: pee dee. pee dee. The mid-river ice had opened up, setting the water out there free to dance in the sun with a sequin sparkle. Bliss! I lay back in the snow like a kid making angels, basking in warmth on top, icy cold beneath. Ahhh....
A little thirsty, I reached for a handful of nice clean snow and nearly had it in my mouth when I saw all the little black squirmies: BUGS! I lurched up and looked around: Thousands of them, all around, like a giant pepper shaker had sprinkled the surface of the snow. And when I poked them, they jumped. Like fleas. Aha! I thought. These must be snow fleas. And so they were. I had never seen them before, but probably because I just wasn't looking. Now when I'm out on the snow in sunny mid-February I find them everywhere. There's a wonderful book by Curt Stager, Field Notes from the Northern Forest, that has a whole chapter on these fascinating bugs, whose official name is springtails or, scientifically, collembola. They're not fleas at all; they don't bite; they appear to suck up stuff through a kind of sipping straw on their bellies; they're so uniquely equipped with parts no other insect has (their springtails, for instance) that some entomologists think they might belong in a class all their own. And they certainly had me amazed. Whoever heard of a cold-blooded bug walking around on the snow?
Or a moth afloat on the frigid air of February? Yep, I've seen those too, along that stretch of river bank. Hunter's moths, the adult male form of the spring cankerworm that emerges long before other moths have left their snug winter beds. Little wisps of papery-thin tan wings and black bare feet. How on earth can they stand it? Here I am in my longjohns, polar fleece, and goose down, enveloped in about 20 pounds of excess fat, with my own internal combustion engine burning away, and I'd probably die if I tried to stay out here all night.
Actually, I do know how they do it. I've read Bernd Heinrich's Winter World: The ingenuity of winter survival, and he explains it all: hibernation, torpor, antifreeze for blood and other strategies. But knowing the science doesn't erase the marvel.
Thirty years or more ago, scientists discovered a pink mite near the South Pole, closer to the Pole than animal life had been known to exist. Dorothy Donnelly, an award-winning poet and my husband's mother, wrote a poem about it:
The Pink Mite
Science abhors a fiction, its forte being fact.
For facts it will fly to the moon (a feat once restricted
to fiction); it will move a mountain to prove a mouse.
Its game, as old as man, is questions-and-answers --
"How far down the globe do signs of life, extinct
or extant, extend? Are there tracks of its trek to the end?"
With the zeal of merchants searching for peerless pearls,
scientists, searching for answers, pushed toward the perilous
Pole on the heels of life, and past the last penguin,
in a world of cold, they found it, warming the heart
of a mite -- a pinpoint of pink of whose ilk a herd
could have bivouacked beneath a snowflake. But size aside,
it was just as alive as a lion, and as much at home
on the adamant ice as a crocodile in plush mud
on the Nile. Survivor of terrible airs, it proved
how far life would go to plant its seeds, hatching
at the planet's frigidest inch an infinitesimal,
pink, pedestrian mite with a liking for lichen.
And when, unattended, the infant steps from the snug
egg, with its eight bare feet and small bald head,
is it cold? When it opens wide its mouth to be filled
in this wilderness, is it foiled? Oh, it does not want!
Led like the flock to grass, the pink mite feeds
in polar pastures, replete as a sheep on the green.