Frigid and Flourishing: Life in the Snowscape

Ice_Caitlyn_Wynne

It’s now January, which means that up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is, generally speaking, the coldest time of year. The days are still short, barely rounding the bend from their shortest point on the solstice, and the sun cuts a tentative, shallow angle across bleak, sleepy skies, darting back under the horizon almost as soon as it emerged, as if it was trying to escape the nippy atmosphere and curl up under the warm cover of night.

The arrival into this annual temperature trough is sitting prominently in my mind these days for a variety of reasons:

  1. My beloved Seattle Seahawks, just this weekend, made a miraculous win in Minnesota, despite enduring the full, sub-zero fury of the Gopher State, with windchill reaching a lung-punching 20-below, making it the third coldest NFL game ever.
  2. The armed, self-described “militia” yokels currently more than a week and a half into squatting in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in my homeland of Oregon do so in a region of the state that suffers the most harrowing winter temperatures. A week ago, nighttime lows plummeted to 18-below (cold enough to turn the occupiers into Skoal-and-jerky flavored popsicles), and it hasn’t risen much since then, and won’t until March. There’s been some talk of cutting the power to the headquarters building, and simply waiting for the unyielding, unmitigated harshness of a high-desert January to bludgeon the everloving shit out of their seditionist tantrum.
  3. I recently returned from a trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to visit family for the holidays, during one of the most anomalously snowy and cold weeks of the year, with the snowline slumping down nearly to sea level, invading rainforest river valleys that are almost guaranteed snow-free throughout the winter. My soft, Hawaii-resident body whined in the face of 25 degree temperatures, atypical for a comparatively mild area of coastal Washington.


Behold, nearby Mt. Baker, one of the snowiest places on planet Earth. If winter itself had its own mountain, this would be it.

Photo: Jake Buehler

Even back in my normally balmy Hawaiian Islands, it’s now cold. And by “cold” I mean that I occasionally get the shivers waking up early in the morning with the windows open, and I don’t become a sweat-slicked heap of misery and heat exhaustion when just sitting in my home office. Basically, “cold” in Honolulu is when daytime highs top out short of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tend to think these cold conditions, whether they are just a seasonal inconvenience, or a year-round way of life (like up near the poles), as being particularly insufferable for life. When the landscape is buried under five feet of Winnipeg white, the ecosystem functions very differently. Vegetation isn’t accessible to many herbivores. Predators have a minuscule pool of animals to hunt. The temperatures are too low for “cold-blooded” animals like amphibians and reptiles to stay active. Plant growth grinds to a crawl. Everything trying to scrape by in the frozen stillness seems to either be on the verge of starving or freezing to death.

The truth is, however, that while many organisms make a great effort to put up with or evade (ala songbirds flying towards the equator for winter, or mammals that hibernate) freezing temperatures…there are a minority that have embraced these glacial surroundings. Organisms that have evolved extreme levels of cold-tolerance sit at the lower boundary of what is possible for life to persist. Because of them, the coldest parts of our planet actually teem with life, even if it doesn’t appear that way during on initial impressions.

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E pluribus unum

Well look at you. Aren’t you a masterpiece of biological evolution? You are a big, ambulatory, autonomous human being. You are separate from the insects on the ground, the birds in the air, and the steer in your burger. As a human, you envision yourself as lord of your surroundings, a unique animal risen and separate from other “lower” forms of life. Look at those clothes! And those thumbs! You are a whole and special individual, a single, isolated member of a species that has dominated and partitioned itself off from “nature” through years of rugged conquest and ingenuity. You could be very smug about all of that.

Except you’d be wrong.

You are not alone. While it is no secret that humans share their bodies with a bunch of microscopic, and smallish macroscopic, guests, the scope of their pervasiveness and impact on our lives is not commonly understood. The role of microorganisms and other parasites in the human experience extends far beyond a bit of armpit odor, bad breath, head lice, and dandruff.

In the perspective of a bacterium, the outside of the human body is an endless substrate, strewn with a ridiculous amount of nutrients and minerals, set on a lumbering factory that just churns out more goodies, making human skin an attractive place to settle down and colonize. The inside of humans is even better! It’s warm and moist and if you’re in the right organ system, new nutrients get delivered right to you! Human bodies are to bacteria as a mystical candy house in the woods is to Hansel and Gretel. It is only by the graces of the immune system provided, non-stop, by vigilant human cells that you and I aren’t eaten from inside out…and also from the outside in…by our plentiful tenants.

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