My photographer friend Linda Gammell recently told me about a winter week she spent in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. Her work usually focuses on prairie plants–rose hips, gamma grasses, staghead ferns. What was she doing in all that cold? “I wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “To get to that edge of fear when walking into the woods takes me to an awareness that a few steps further and I might not find my way back.” Not to mention that at 30 below zero, she might soon freeze to death. Not to mention that below a certain temperature, the shutter on her camera didn’t work.
The camp where she and a painter friend stayed is run by a band of youths who aren’t afraid of cold. Several groups were there this winter week: a band of hardy outdoor painters who’ve perfected the gear–hand and feet warmers, for starters–to allow for pleine aire artistry at 30 below. Then a group of blind outdoor lovers. At the sauna, their trust came alive. First the heat and sweat, then with socks on their feet, a short walk down a dock to a hole cut in the ice. Lowering oneself by holding onto a pole fastened over the water, the heat-besotted enter the freezing water. But it’s not possible to exit without a helping hand–ice forms too quickly on one’s own fingers which slip off the pole. “I was amazed,” Linda said, “at the trust of the blind. They made their way down the dock and into the water, confident that someone would be there to help retrieve them through the ice.” It sounds like a birth experience.
Cold has never been my friend, especially below certain degrees. My first winter in Minnesota, after edging north from South Carolina, first to Baltimore for college where it snowed a few times, then to New York City where I bought some knee-high boots, then to Kansas City where a January tornado blew out windows in our newish apartment complex and finally to the Twin Cities, I arrived with what I expected was winter hardiness. Excited to sample winter sports, my husband and I went to the sled-dog races at Lake Como. Standing for an hour in my Big Apple boots, my toes became so numb I couldn’t feel them. Once home I unsheathed my feet: there they were, ten white shriveled fish, rather limp. With slow heating in warm water, I brought them back to agonizing life–they stung and itched, swelled red and troubled, and only subsided after days of tender massage and more soaking. Ditto some of my fingers over the first fifteen years of Minnesota winters. Finally I gave up any notion of fashion and now muffle my head, neck, body, hands in as much goose down as possible, plus I wear two pairs of men’s socks inside heavy men’s hiking boots. Traction and interior space to trap layers of air and let the “piggies” wiggle. It’s been many years since my feet haven’t made it comfortably through a winter.
But the artistry of cold? I think of German-American poet Lisel Mueller whose poem “Not Only the Eskimos” gives us so many versions: “the Big Snow when Chicago becomes/like paradise and strangers spoke to each other” or her poem “Letter to California,” with its evocation of “bony trees, which hold/the dancer’s first position” until an intimation occurs: “cardinal with its lyric call/its body blazing like a saint’s/unexpected gaudy heart.” She has it best, I think, as I gaze out to my bird feeders, later winter afternoons, watching the cardinals flicker back and forth, not quite eroded by darkness.