I'm reading Winter World and Why We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich. I like animals, and Heinrich writes about them fluidly, without melodrama or weakness. His books on nature never fail to surpirse me, never fail to make me look at my world with keener interest and assurance, nor do they make me think that science writing has to be statistics and retroactive finger pointing at incorrect historical theories.
I walked in the woods near the Chickering Bog in central Vermont the other day. It was raining and it was all cool, gray skies. There weren't many real animals out. I was thinking about growing up, and remembering the massive shape of the world from my memories of looking up at it from the head height of a five year old. I made some promises to myself about what kind of father I was going to be to my child, a boy or girl, who will be coming into the world in February.
I thought about animals who hibernate, or go into states of torpor where time - in all of its erosive capacity - nearly stops. I thought about the little life inside my wife's body, and how it was in a kind of reverse hibernation, growing and feasting and wriggling and beating its small heart at double-pace just to make itself big enough for this big world.
Some animals, certain toads, freeze solid in the winter. Others are able to supercool to well below freezing temperatures without growing dangerous ice crystals (which razor through cell tissue with destructive effect) inside their bodies. Animals with intelligent or lucky or crafty design have been astounding me for long enough that it should be time for me to do something about it.
When I was at the bog, standing at the edge of the brackish and stagnant water in its open center, a heron clacked its bill and called out in its gaunt, throaty way from across the water. I thought about how they ride thermals to incomprehensible heights during migration. Sometimes, in preparation for winter, hundreds of birds can be seen climbing the thermal updrafts beneath cumulus clouds. Hawks, swallows, herons, vultures, and many other natural enemies, all riding the same invisible escalator before taking the big slide south. It's a lesson I should teach to my child when it is young, because I could ascribe so much to that mysterious and beautiful act of natural enemies working together, harnessing the same resource for the same goal. While I stared at the heron, a tall gray bird with a brooding and severe face and eyes, it speared a frog and swallowed it with an upward flick of its bill.
Heinrich writes about running with the same natural curiousity he writes about ravens and winter survival. I'm not a runner, not really, but his book inspires me to want to run. In one section, there's talk about indigenous tribes who used to chase down deer on foot until, exhausted, the deer would halt. The hunter would approach the deer, use a one-arm-lock to hold it still around the neck, and the other to cover the nose and mouth, smothering the animal. In their palms, these tribesman held a sacred corn pollen powder, which the deer would inhale as it died. I don't know why that sounds so appealing to me.
Winter is coming, and so is a baby, in February, to me and my wife. I'm excited about the prospect of providing the elusive and necessary warmth that our little baby will need. I'm terrified, elated, protective and already in love with a being I've only spoken to through the skin of my wife's belly, this amazing woman whose body is growing our child.