Winter Thinking

The long nights of winter and hammock experiments allow me a great deal of thinking time. Some of that time is very productive, and some of it is purely emotional in a primordial way. I have sometimes been challenged to write a little more about my feelings than my findings. As a scientist/engineer that is not always easy. However, that is what this post is all about.

The thought of going out into the cold and sleeping in a hammock can be quite daunting. Yes, I reassure my son, I know it is completely safe. If I begin to shiver I will come in. I will escape to the warmth provided by a big warm house. And those words reassure me too.

Somewhere in my primitive defense mechanisms, words of warning scream though the rational thought pattern. "You are going to die in the cold," my brain whispers to me. "You are going to get sleepy and never wake up." So, in response, I pick up the hammock, the quilt, and some additional insulation into my arms. I step into the frosty world of swirling wind, crunchy snow underfoot and realize the little hairs inside my nose are freezing to one another with each breath. In this environment I will spend a night, trusting the materials I have put together with my own hands to keep me safe, even if not comfortable.

Why? Well, it all started when a friend who would be going with me to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area asked me to make sure the hammock stuff would work well on our mid-summer's trip. I recognized the look in his eyes. I have had the same look when considering a trip to the wilderness with a friend. "Is he going to drag me down? Is he going to be begging for extra food? Is he going to be miserable and even beg to go home early because he has not thought through the implications of his choice of gear?" The thought went something like this: If I can spend comfortable nights across the worst of Ohio's April with the gear, I should be able to do anything the border lakes can throw at me in August.

Exactly how this snowballed (sorry for the pun) into sleep systems for Ohio's January, I really don't know. Maybe a few too many testosterone molecules got lodged in some wacky part of my primitive brainstem... But last year I started seeing how cold I could go. Whenever I think rationally about it, the devotion to this cold problem in a hammock seems quite un-rational. Too bad! It, like the figurative mountain, is there and begs to be climbed. The realization that no one else has ever been this path before is part of the adventure. The realization that there is a reason no one has been this path before is just something I stick in the TravelPod as extra is like a bunch of dry leaves.

The result finds me, again, swinging between two trees in a 15 mph wind, with an air temperature hovering around 20. I feel quite snug, even smug, lying there looking into the sky through the little slit in the Travel Pod.

Some nights, the sky is as clear as interstellar space. I again look to my childhood friend, Orion, and name his stars. Up and to the left is the beautiful red tinted Beetle Juice (I use the phonetic spellings here just for fun) and her cold blue twin Rigel down and to the right. How a single constellation ended up with so many beautiful objects has always amazed me and is a powerful reminder that random groups are not homogeneous. Random distributions, in fact, are often wonderfully complex with beautiful clumpings of splendor. Back to the upper right of Orion is that Amazon Woman named Bellatrix. How I again thank God that my wife is not like her! To the lower right is the misnamed Saiph or sword. Between Beetle Juice (Betelgeuse) and Bellatrix is the fainter Meissa, easy to overlook when the sky is obscured by moon glow. The beautiful stars of the belt are there: Alnitac, Alnilam, and Mintaka. I use my last name (Allnutt) to remember the beginning of the first two. The suffixes come to be because there once was a great Air Force command called the Tactical Air Command (TAC) and because my sheep in the back yard each began as a winter born lamb. I look at the structure of M42 in the sword and judge the clarity of the sky by how much of the cloud I can see with my bespeckled glasses.

Other nights, the moon shines partly obscured by clouds through the waving branches of the trees over my head. I try to concentrate on the movement of the limbs, thinking about how much of the motion is due to my swinging and how much is due to the limbs moving in the air. In the cold, the limbs sometimes crack as the water in their thin skins freeze and then the ice breaks with a sudden movement of the limb in the wind. I worry a little about them coming down and spearing my abdomen, my life ending in a pool of coagulating and freezing blood, alone. It begins a singsong washing back and forth between the melancholy sterility of the emotions of winter and the logical improbability of any such event. I know I probably will not die this way. It is much more likely I would simply be badly wounded and crawl bleeding into the house. Small comfort as I look up again at the cold moon through the branches.

Then there is the thought that this pod around the hammock will be my shroud. When will I wake with ice infesting the whole zipper? Will I be able to push the zipper through the ice, or will I have to resort to pulling the cloth apart at the seams. How well did I build the seams? Will I be able to get enough grip to break the threads? Should I have carried a knife to be with me so I can slit my way out? What about a gun, as has been suggested? Will some demented creature, man or beast, decide on this improbable cold night to attack me for warmth, or food, or out of meanness? Maybe it will be for my warm down quilt that they will sacrifice me on the cold black altar of death.

With pleasant thoughts as these, I drift off to sleep. Dreams of cold caves and trees and warm lakes and summer breezes run through the dreams. Getting up to do the necessary at midnight and again at 2 or 3 AM, I wonder that I am so warm; and that I get cold as fast as I do. Back in the protective covers I warm up again and feel kinship with my kind that have been able to survive winter for these many generations. I wonder how many of them tried to do so in a hammock and how many of them would have thought me daft for trying. So great a cloud of witnesses debate about the merits of my thinking as I drift off to sleep again...

And so it goes. Sometimes with only a few interruptions to turn on a different side, and sometimes with even hours of lying partly awake wondering when sleep will ever come and if the night will ever end.

This is what it is like for me when I sleep in a hammock in the middle of the winter.

All in all, it is a wonderful way spend a portion of the hours of life given to me. It is a wonderful way to live.


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