When the chill of winter arrives, you can either run the other way or embrace it. Having spent many years enjoying the outdoors in all seasons and weather, I aim for the latter and in this spirit spent the past week on a dog sledding and Nordic skiing camping trip in northern Minnesota.
With temperatures well below zero and in the single digits, but also in the balmy teens, needs focus in on the basics: food and sufficient firewood with which to boil water and cook, the right clothing for staying warm and dry, and shelter-- in this case a bivvy sack for sleeping under the stars.
The Boundary Waters are remote area that feels all the more remote in the winter. An area north of the "Laurentian Divide", raindrops and snow melt end up in the Arctic Ocean, rather than the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, or Pacific. Led by the fabulous outfitter Wintergreen, founded by Paul Schurke, a noted polar explorer whom we dubbed "Eighth Wonder of the Word" for his endurance, resilience, and intrepidness, the trip entailed traversing blissful miles of frozen lakes and boreal forests filled with black spruce and balsam furs, birch, and aspen.
Along the way was evidence of local creatures -- snow tracks left by wolves, deer, moose, and snowshoe hares -- and continual admiration for our sled dogs, true professionals, each full of personality and eager to pull, dragging sleds carrying our heavy loads of equipment (with skiers breaking trail in the deeper snow). Inuit dogs are the domesticated breed closest to wolf; their wolfish selves emerging in their occasional canine-bearing snarls directed at one another to assert dominance. At the same time they respond like puppies when interacting with humans, basking in attention and rolling onto their backs for a stomach rub.
In the remote frozen region, one's reliance on others becomes all the more apparent, an interesting irony in that one can feel most connected to other people in a wilderness environment. Arriving into the evening's campsite, we spread out to perform tasks assumed almost instinctually: gathering firewood, digging into the lake ice to create a water hole, setting up a fire pit on the ice, with a layer of logs underlying metal fire trays to separate the fire and ice. We cleared areas to set up our bivvy sacks, digging into the snow to shelter the bags from wind. And we tending to the sled dogs, transitioning them from the sled to hooking them up one by one on a line set up along the trees, removing their harnesses, and preparing their food.
While the Boundary Waters are a world away from New York City, there was much that was elemental on the trip that translated to my urban home. If neighboring wolves and our sled dogs are pack animals, so too we humans form packs, finding community and interdependencies among one another, and even asserting--or encountering others asserting--alpha dominance.
My return to New York City from the Great North Woods felt uncanny. The taxi that whisked me from the airport to home seemed confining and way to warm inside. To the driver's chagrin, I opened the window to feel the snap of cold and the breeze -- to breathe again -- and could almost imagine that I was being transported by dog sled across a frozen lake, rather than in a taxi on the crowded Grand Central Parkway.
On arriving home, I took pleasure in having a warm bed and modern conveniences: indoor plumbing and a stove that didn't require gathering abundant firewood. At the same time that I appreciated the significant labor saved by these inventions, they also made me feel disconnected from the elemental features they deliver: fire at the turn of a knob; water at the turn of a handle. No hours spent scouring an island for firewood, with coordinated efforts to chop and saw fallen trees, drag them many yards to our fire pit and sort the wood into fire-starter twigs and birch bark, thicker branches, and logs. No continual chinking into the 2-foot lake ice to reach water. It all seemed too easy, and I pondered for a while what is lost when we receive such abundant resources with ease -- recognizing too how much is gained by not having to focus every day on basic survival needs.
Having unpacked and run a load of laundry (more modern convenience magic!), I proceeded outside, ambling down Lexington Avenue, with each step sensing the breeze along the avenue as it touched the bare skin of my face and noting it felt as constant as the breeze encountered while traversing frozen lakes and forests on skis and dog sled.
By some premonition, I felt a presence that impelled me to look up. And there, aloft on 73rd and Lex, was a Peregrine falcon, drifting on a thermal, a touch of wild in the metropolis, and a reminder of the wildness that persists if we just know where to look.
With temperatures in the New York City area in the single digits and teens over the past few days, a stroll outside can feel like an adventure. One of the more noticeable things about walking outside on a chilly day is that we can see our breath. With every exhale, a small cloud billows from our mouth, wisps whirling, clustering, separating and then fading into the surrounding air.
From each living, breathing animal-being around us, cloudlets emanate with every breath, vaporous chiaroscuro intermingling with the exhales of passers by, as if engaging in a collective dance. Dogs on their outings and birds too display visible breath. Even the exhaust from cars and output from the tall chimney stacks on buildings become more visible, suggesting that in way they too are breathing, or that perhaps we living creatures have our own little engines. Indeed it is the oxygen we breathe in that fuels our bodies. We can live a month without food, a week without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen.
Seeing our breath on a cold day is a reminder of our reciprocity with the natural world around us. The air we take in is 21% oxygen (78% is nitrogen) because of plants, which intake carbon dioxide and mix it with sunshine to create sugar and breathe out oxygen. We are taught in meditation to focus on our breath. How much easier it is to focus on breath when it becomes visible. And how much it reminds us of this minute by minute bodily process -- on average 16 breaths per minute -- that sustains our lives and the lives of others creatures around us.
With a number of days of below-freezing temperatures, ponds in the New York City area are beginning to ice over. Water that just a week ago responded to the subtlest of breezes begins to harden and solidify. The freezing starts on the edges of the pond, where the water is shallow, and crystallizes into a choreography of frozen formations: varying patterns and textures, spindle-like, smooth and pristine, rough and abraded, rivulets and cracks.
The ice encases fallen leaves and twigs, a cryogenic embalming that delays their decomposition until the spring thaw. Infinite small bubbles gather below the frozen surface, and peering down through the ice at these glistening spheres seems not unlike gazing through a glass window at the starry night sky. They form a Milky-Way in aqueous suspension.
Over the coming weeks, assuming the temperature frequents below freezing, the ice will grow toward the ponds' center, until the entire pond is frozen over. This icy sheath, H20 in its solid state, will separate the liquid world below, the realm of hibernating fish, turtles, and aquatic frogs, from the air above containing water in a gaseous state, including the moisture of our own breath, cloud-like and visible, and comingling with the chilly winter air.
One of the blessings of winter is the opportunity to observe the architecture of hardwood trees. Shorn of concealing leaves, their framework becomes visible -- fractal geometry, with branches splitting off and again dividing and splitting, from the thick central trunk, a torso of sorts, culminating in finer twigs, like small fingers, reaching outward and upward.
Each type of tree displays unique morphology and growth patterns, with limbs branching off at wider or narrower angles, sometimes looping downward in a "u" shape before ascending, some knobby, gnarled and twisted, others soaring, erect, and tapering, some with great symmetry, others more variable -- a range of templates for achieving growth and access to nourishing sunlight.
The texture of trees' bark becomes more apparent in the crisp light of winter, the furrowed, patterned grooves of elms appear in greater relief, the smooth, silvery surface of beeches almost shines, and one senses the tactile feel of the scaly, thinly-plated bark of London Plane trees. Knots, burls, fissures, and cavities become visible. And amid the the muted winter palette, one can discern bark's varying colors, ranges of browns, grays, white, and green, sometimes with tinges of orange or red, colors often overshadowed by inviting greens and flamboyant autumn shades in the year's other seasons.
And then there is the experience of striding past a stand of denuded trees, their trunks tall and aligned, like sentinels. With each step, a movement felt more keenly horizontal in relation to the trees' verticality, one's perspective changes and the trees relative alignment with one another alters, with cinemographic and near-kaleidoscopic effect.
Perhaps winter hardwoods offer a metaphor as we embark on a new year: unadorned, the trees exhibit their underlying stark beauty, strength and symmetry. All is apparent, nothing is concealed. Yet, even in this state, small buds are visible, waiting for the right conditions to bloom and flourish.
"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn't show." -- Andrew Wyeth
Each season offers its gifts to our senses, and with autumn our senses awaken to the powerful changes in nature around us. We observe the leaves changing color and falling to the ground, we hear crisp leaves underfoot, we feel a stronger breeze and cooler temperature, and deep within our bodies, with the waning daylight, perhaps comes a gnawing desire to retreat to our homes a little earlier and stay snug and warm, much like fellow creatures that hibernate.
Our sense us smell awakens too to the change in seasons. What causes that rich “autumn smell”? In a recent article journalist Matthew Cappucci provides insights:
Leaves are designed to produce “food” for the plant — glucose — through the process of photosynthesis. They take in six carbon dioxide and six water molecules at a time and, with a bit of sunlight, reshuffle them to form glucose and six oxygen molecules. That’s why plants are said to “purify” the air. They add breathable oxygen to it. But even though this reaction produces energy for the plant, it takes a lot of work to sustain.
In the fall, when the energy needed to create the “food” outweighs the energy afforded to the plant by the food itself, the leaves are no longer needed — and with that, the tree bids them farewell.
When the leaves fall, they die. As they take their last breath, they “exhale” all sorts of gases through tiny holes known as stomata. Among these compounds released are terpene and isoprenoids, common ingredients in the oils that coat plants. Terpenes are hydrocarbons, meaning their main ingredients are hydrogen and carbon. Pinene, a species of terpene, smells like — you guessed it — pine. It’s a main ingredient to the saplike resin that repairs the bark of conifers and pine trees.
Occasionally, these gas molecules excreted by plants — known as volatile organic compounds — interact with variants of nitrous oxide. This can lead to ozone production, which can smell a bit like chlorine or the exhaust of a dryer vent.
In addition to the release of gases contained within dying vegetation, two other effects contribute to the emotion-evoking scent that accompanies a northwest autumn breeze: decomposing plant matter, and pollutants trapped at the ground levels during the fall months.
The soil in most parts of the world is rich in Geotrichum candidum, a fungus that causes rotting and decomposition of fruits and vegetables and dense plant matter. In fact, Geotrichum candidum has been sampled on all seven continents. This is just one of many species that erodes away as deceased organisms, the chemical reactions of which contribute to the smell of “fall.”
Allow your senses to connect with autumn.
We are deep into autumn, with a chill in the air and the hours of daylight diminishing, prompting leaves to change color and fall to the ground.
What actually causes leaves to fall? In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren provides a beautiful description of the science behind falling leaves:
If you rake fallen leaves into a pile and then examine them, you will see that each one shows a consummately clean break at the same place near the base of the stem. The fall of leaves is highly choreographed. First the green pigments are pulled back behind the narrow row of cells marking the border between stem and branch. Then, on the mysteriously appointed day, this row of cells is dehydrated and becomes weak and brittle. The weight of the leaves is now sufficient to bend and snap it from the branch. It takes a tree only a week to discard its entire year's work, cast off like a dress barely worn but too unfashionable for further use. Can you imagine throwing away all of your possessions once a year because you are secure in your expectation that you will be able to replace them in a matter of weeks? (p. 95)
Autumn's falling leaves offers an opportunity to consider what we can discard. What is it that we no longer need? What is that we don't need now, but are confident we can restore in the future? In what ways are we comfortable or not about letting go?
Water creates and destroys. It is vital for life, for humans and other animals (we who are mostly water) and for vegetation on which our lives and the lives of almost all other living creatures depend for food and oxygen. It is a source of delight, a tall glass of ice cold water quenching our thirst on a hot day, a cool shower cleansing off the sweat and grit of from a sweltering city day, and a glimpse of a shimmering river, bay or ocean offering a panorama that can fill us with a sense of beauty and awe.
Yet, water also annihilates. It turns violent in its machinery of storms, with ravaging hurricanes and wall-of-water tsunamis inundating and destroying homes and possessions and endangering and ending our lives. Over years, water destroys the roofs over our homes. Over eons, it eats away at the land, eroding it to form canyons; as glacial ice, it pushes aside stone, carving grand valleys like giant earth moving equipment.
We encounter water-as-destroyer with the arrival of hurricane season, and the 2018 season launched with Florence hitting landfall in the Carolinas this past weekend, swelling rivers, transforming streets into canals, uprooting trees, and destroying homes and lives. Floodwaters continue to rise, with the region’s water supply endangered by contamination from toxic pollutants.
Yet, a few hundred miles to the north, with a high pressure system stalling the northward creep of the storm, water was offering its delights to a few dozen swimmers, including myself, participating in an open water event at Coney Island with CIBBOWS, Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimming, the “Triple Dip”, with options to swim 1, 2, or 3 miles. Despite the devastating conditions in the Carolinas, the conditions at Coney Island were splendid, with air temperature in the mid-seventies and water at a temperature in the low-70s and not unusually turbulent.
Swimming at Coney Island offers an experience in contrasts, even separate from markedly different weather systems along the coast. Immersed off the coast in the open water, slicing through modest chop and current, and occasionally bumping into fish, one catches glimpses of the amusement park and its iconic rides: the Cyclone roller coaster, carousel, and Wonder Wheel, looking like giant toys. On the one hand, ocean water, so natural and elemental, and on the other hand, brightly colored attractions built for entertainment. Then again, the water offers its own ride, with wave motion rocking your body and the current redirecting your stroke.
But if the amusement park Cyclone was abuzz with activity, so too was a real cyclone, making landfall to the south, and during the day’s swim at Coney Island, the duality of water—like the Hindu god Shiva, destroyer and benefactor—was on many of our minds. After all, it was only 6 years ago that Hurricane Sandy inflicted tens of billions of dollars of devastation in the New York area. Storm surges flooded streets, subways, and tunnels and terminated power for many communities, and we are still experiencing the storm’s effects. The flooded Cortland Street subway station opened just a few weeks ago, and the L train will soon shut down for repairs due to damage incurred from Sandy flooding. Other hurricanes continue to devastate in their aftermath: Maria in Puerto Rico, Harvey in Texas, and Katrina in New Orleans
How to reconcile the contrasts in nature? On the one hand, water offered its delights to a group of folks opting for the voluntary adventure of a beach-side open water swim on a sunny day, with a view of a giddy amusement park; yet, a few hundred miles south, water was a force of monstrosity, putting lives at risk.
Like the ebb and flow of tides, water gives and takes away.
Wind, Water, Stone
By Octavio Paz (1979)
Translated by Elliot Weinberger
Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.
Wind carves stone,
stone's a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.
Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.
Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.
If Manhattanhenge, discussed in my prior blog, broadcasts the relationship between Manhattan’s street grid and the sun’s seasonal path, summer’s heat pushes us to respond to the sun’s path with innate astronomical awareness in our daily lives.
With summer in full blast, the sun’s heat radiates off sidewalks and buildings and intensifies the temperature. As a walker in Manhattan, whether for pleasure, errand running, or as part of my daily commute, I often assess what side of a street is better shaded, and choose that side for my walk. With the longer stretches of my walk extending in a north-south/south-north direction, this means walking on the east side of an avenue in the morning and the west side in the evening. The difference in temperature is significant. Winter brings the opposite effect: seeing out the sunnier side of the street for greater warmth and light.
Orientation to the sun has figured in town and city planning for centuries, typically as a way to enhance warmth and light long before the development of modern heating and lighting systems. Notably, in 1916 New York City passes a zoning resolution to preserve sunlight at street level, recognizing sunlight as a public good. At the time, buildings were limited in height—and sun-blocking effects—by engineering capabilities.
With continual improvements in elevators and the use of steel frame structures, building height have multiplied, impacting street-level sunlight. At the same time, urban landscape materials—asphalt, metal, and dark buildings—absorb more sunlight than forests, fields, and snow-covered terrain, resulting in an “urban heat island”, were a city’s temperature is significantly warmer than in surrounding areas. New York City’s heat island effect is most felt at night, when the temperature is 5 to 7 degrees warmer than in surrounding areas.
Scientists and urban planners have considered how attention to the interplay of urban structures and sunlight can enhance energy conservation by cooling the city. NASA determined that dark, sunlight absorbing black roofs in New York City reached 170 degrees on July 22, 2011, a peak day in a heat wave that resulted in a city record for electricity usage. By contrast, white roofs were 42 degrees cooler. This led to the widespread installation of white roofs, with the aim of decreasing electricity usage and reducing city temperatures.
While not as extreme as the impact of roof-top lightening, a shift from the sunny to the shaded side of a city street in the middle of Julycan offer a welcomed refuge. If you find yourself wandering down a city street during the heat of summer, think about how you intuitively position yourself for cooling comfort. We’re not so different from other animals in this way!
The rain was falling lightly during my walk to work today. It cast a sheen on built surfaces, transforming sidewalks and streets from gritty and dull, light-absorbing flatness to illuminating mirrors. Puddling in the depressed edges of sidewalk squares and in random fissures and crannies, it highlighted the imperfections in the controlled straight-line geometry of our built environment. Rivulets of small steams ran curbside, the water braiding in patterns as it found its way down micro gradients that barely were perceptible when the surface was dry.
Gently, the drops hit the ground with a light, feathery drumbeat. Falling on puddles, each drop created rings of concentric circles, with small waves expanding outward and intersecting neighboring circles in a dance of geometry as wondrous and revealing as my childhood Spirograph toy. Drops gathered at the tips of tree branches like little crystals reflecting light. As we know, each drop fell from the sky, part of "the water cycle" we learned about as children, a cycle that connects land, sky, and ocean and stretches back hundreds of million of years.
Walking along the city canyon of buildings, my line of vision is limited. But I think about what this weather system looks like from overhead or at a distance. I think about how in wide open vistas one can observe the rain from afar looking like a dark column connecting deeper gray clouds in the sky and earth. Some Native American tribes have referred to these columns as tall women moving across the Plains.
Rainfall in a field or forest is delightful, with water enhancing deep greenery and dripping off leaves. But rain in a city reminds us that nature and its cycles are always with us. It transforms urban micro plains and surfaces, enriching their colors and calling out asymmetries and forces of gravity and nature that even the most focused efforts of humankind to tame cannot overcome.
Consider taking a walk on a rainy day.
The fourth nor'easter of the 2017-2018 winter season has hit. During a "pocket adventure" of a snowy morning wander through Central Park, I was reminded of a piece I wrote some years ago about a pocket adventure during another snowstorm, which happened to coincide with an apt exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and performance at the Metropolitan Opera, and nods to my hero Max from Where the Wild Things Are, also mentioned in my previous post:
December 26 brings urban snow storm bliss to this woman who grew up reading tales of explorers of faraway places: nighttime cross-country skiing up Lexington Avenue, then into Central Park, breaking trail around the Reservoir bridle path. Trees groan in the wind and lightening zaps the sky bright for a moment. The snow bears down hard and drifts. By the time I come full circle on the bridle path, my tracks are gone.
After twenty-five years of living in the neighborhood and frequenting the park, I am used to the variability of this place, how it changes with the seasons and times of day. But, this evening, it is eerily transformed. All alone in this dark and wind-howling space, I am transported to deep winter in New England, or if I let my imagination go farther, to a place more remote: Antarctica. I am in the company of the ghosts of Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, whose voyages to the South Pole are chronicled in the exhibit now at the American Museum of Natural History and who perhaps, by some supernatural force and dark sense of humor, brought on this storm to enhance the exhibit’s verisimilitude. If I listen hard enough through the wind, I can will myself into hearing the explorers’ sled dogs yelping, stirred to life and excited by the storm. I complete my evening adventure with a ski down East 79th Street and return to my apartment, feeling lucky to have shelter.
The next morning I awaken early to ski in the park while the snow still is pristine. Plows have been through overnight, clearing Central Park Drive and east-west pathways. But for this touch of civilization and the efforts of many now sleep-deprived snow clearing teams, all is quiet, still, and disguised by heaping drifts of snow. I am once again transported to a faraway place, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, when his bedroom transforms into a jungle.
Lost in the rhythm of skiing and day dreaming about being a part of Amundsen’s courageous team, I barely notice the stranger trudging by ski-less. As I glide past, he says, “I once skied to the opera!” I am stirred out of my snow-induced trance enough to reply, “I’m going tonight. La Fanciulla.” I smile inwardly at the appropriateness of this of all operas, with its snow scene and gun-slinging, frontier-woman heroine not dying of consumption, a rugged character perfect for the rugged weather. My response evidently strikes a chord. The stranger senses an opening and asserts, “What’s with the over the top Magic Flute? Too much for an opera buffa! What do they think it is, The Lion King?” He continues, “And that Anna Netrebko, she’s such a ham. I mean that Lucia, singing with her neck hanging off the stage! What next, singing standing on her head, just because she can?” With Scott and Amundsen in slow fadeout, I realize it’s not a moment to debate the virtues of spectacle for bringing in broader audiences. I agree with the stranger, noncommittally. It’s time to ski along.
As I glide away, I think about how I love New York, still itself even when costumed in two feet of snow. I arrive home, and although it’s breakfast time, I have some hot soup, like Max.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.