On the Deathly Cold

We dramatize the weather to the point that it becomes news, so we are startled on the rare occasion when it does merit non-ritual attention. The usual adjectives, “bitter” and “brutal,” do not do the present cold justice.  This cold deserves the ultimate icy adjective: deathly. This is a cold that that does not assault us or need to. We merely need to encounter it, even at its most quiescent, and it shuts us down quietly and without ceremony.

Weather adjectives are more than mere temperatures. They encompass human reactions. It isn’t the numbers that make for an Alaskan, Jack-London cold, but the numbers colored by our reactions. “Bitter” and “brutal” suggest cold weather that has to fight to overcome human energy; cold that is limited enough in its power that we can project onto it an anthropomorphic cruelty, and onto ourselves a self-image of gritty, resistant, heroism. But deathly cold is a sort of beyond-human weather that defeats our anthropomorphic imagination. Even the image of the grim reaper is too ludicrously human to personify this cold. This is the sort of cold that lends to the night air a sort of inky stillness that electric lights feebly fail to penetrate. The sort of blackness to which even wood fires and s’mores cannot add much warmth. A cold that, as we stare up at stars whose twinkling has been stilled, reminds us that in the vastness out there, it is near-absolute-zero space that reigns. Those great balls of nuclear fire, including the one in our neighborhood, truly are just pinpricks. I have been waking up before dawn for the last few days, and it seems to me that even the Sun has been timidly asking for permission  to rise. Even the middle of the day seems at best a thin, precarious and untrustworthy skein of light; a light that is conscious of, and grateful for, the few hours it has been granted.

This character that the cold acquires is, of course, not due only to its direct sensory qualities. As social creatures, we see the weather in each other as well. Socially, this cold is silence; energy-conserving avoidance of eye-contact. In the malls and on the pavements, in coffee shops and on the roads, people limit themselves to the briefest of exchanges. Even American bluster cannot conjure up the “cold enough for ya?” line as readily. Deathly cold causes each of us to withdraw into solitude and stillness. We recognize that there is a point beyond which cold cannot be battled by company or activity. We must be still and quiet, and face it alone, as we must eventually face death. Our animal cousins are wiser than us; they seek the relief of a temporary death-sleep.

Perhaps to me the cold seems deathly because I moved to the Washington, DC area, only a winter ago, after a decade in much colder areas, and have let my guard down. Or perhaps it is because I just returned from a vacation in the tropics. Or perhaps it is because the DC area deludes itself that it is part of the South, and finds itself perennially unprepared for reminders that it isn’t. At least not climate-wise. Or perhaps, as a migrant from the tropics, I haven’t conquered cold winters as comprehensively as I had thought, after my first two years in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But we need deathly cold. Without it, there is no substance to the renewal of spring. Without it, there is no sense of finality and closure to the year past. Through warmer winters, without a bout of deathly cold, the previous year survives, diseased and unhealthy, waiting to be put out of its misery. It is fortunate that Pope Gregory chose, as the start of our global cultural New Year, the time of the year that is, for most of us, closest to death. I feel a bit sorry for those out-of-whack Australians, Argentinians and Chileans, who must deal with death between second and third quarters. It is the deathly cold, more than festivities and resolutions, that makes the New Year new. The enforced stillness and contemplation, that sense of the inconsequential nature of our lives against the backdrop of the near-zero-degree-Kelvin universe, that near-death experience, is what prepares our mind for resurrection and another year of absorption in human affairs, beginning with the cuddly doings of Punxsuwtawny Phil in February.

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  1. Is deathly cold relative or absolute? Because up here in Canada, zero degrees C / 32 F is often considered nice weather.

    Just the other day my neighbors and I were having a beer outside in -10 C / +10 F.

  2. I was just in Thailand, and during a hike in the northern hills, I was in a t-shirt and my local guide was bundled up with hat and coat. I assume Inuits would find DC this week to be a summer vacation.

    It is relative. But I guess if you are a long-stay visitor, the local “cold culture” gets to you.

  3. Weather like this reminds us of the wolf that sits right outside the door.

  4. For the record, deathly cold on the Canadian prairie, i.e. Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is -50 C / -70 F.

  5. Aubrey Keus says

    The first warm day in April (coming from Canada, that is the first month we can expect a nice day) is a grand re-awakening. It is when I talk to neighbours again, can neglect to prepare the car for a cold winter commute and wear at most two layers instead of the required three or four.

    The time period from Jan 2 to April 1 is a disquieting period of tossed and churned slumber punctuated by dreams of warmer climates only a family minivan trip to the south.

  6. You know, thinking about it, I disagree that ‘deathly’ cold is relative.

    If a tropical person is standing outside next to an arctic person, both dressed appropriately, neither one will die. But the tropical person might think so.

    Conversely, if I go to India in the summertime and feel like I simply can’t stand the oppressive heat that all of my hosts are comfortable in, well, that’s a sign that I’ve got some toughening up to do. The fact that humans survive in a particular climate is proof that it isn’t deadly.

  7. Oh, and on the topic of our need for deathly cold, my father always told me “Lack of a good winter causes the proliferation of all kinds of strange life forms. Like Californians.”

  8. LOL @ Californians comment.

    Extreme heat does have its own deathliness. Extreme stillness and ennui overcome you on the hottest summer days in India, and the only thing you can do is take a nap in your own clammy sweat. But it is bearable (for me) in a way that extreme cold is not. So long as you are out of the direct Sun of course.

    Re: relative vs. absolute, maybe it is absolute at the extremes, relative between them. I agree that if you live on the equator and the coldest you ever experience is 28 degrees C, you are hardly going to calibrate that as your ‘deathly cold.’

    But between, say 4-5 deg C and -40/-50, you get the relativism.

  9. When I walked to work this morning it was -32F which is on the cold end of typical ND winter weather (at least for the “banana belt” which is what those on the Canadian border call this part of the state).

    While there is danger to extreme weather (like bad things will happen if you are ill prepared and do not dress accordingly) I think it is still mostly relative and perceptual.

    I have a theory that our bodies react differently to the cold depending on various factors. When I lived in Scotland, 0 degC felt colder than 32 degF here, and I think that is as much to do with humidity as anything else. Wet cold goes through your clothes and chills you to the bone, whereas dry cold doesn’t penetrate. It is a lot easier to dress against dry cold. I also think that there is a band of comfortable cold between 5 degF and 25 degF. Below that it is just cold.

    More interesting to me is the answer to the whole “how much snow did you get this last storm?” question. I have a theory it is a complicated function of actual amount of snowfall, the speed and direction of the wind, and the testosterone levels of those in the conversation.

  10. ” I feel a bit sorry for those out-of-whack Australians, Argentinians and Chileans, who must deal with death between second and third quarters.”

    I’m from Sydney, so I’m one of those out-of-whack Australians. I think Australian weather is more out of whack than you realize. The enforced stillness and sense of inconsequence almost perfectly describes some of the days and weeks we have in January and February. But heat is the culprit, rather than cold.

    I have to admit, I don’t know what real cold is like. Winter in Sydney is an idyll of crisp, cool mornings and clear blue skies. It’s the best time of year, in my opinion. There’s certainly nothing deathly about it — the grass is green, and Australian trees don’t drop their leaves all at once.

    But in summer we have the heat, and that is certainly deathly. I don’t think northern-northern hemisphere types understand what real heat is like (the same way I don’t really know about cold). The kind of heat we get in southern Australia goes well beyond tropical. It gets so hot here that the ambient temperature can get within a couple of degrees of the flash-point of eucalyptus oil. This means that — on a day of “catastrophic fire danger” — you can light a match in an Australian forest and be engulfed in a huge fireball. But even without doing something silly like that, extreme can kill you just as surely as extreme cold can.

    In southern Australia, at least, December through February are still the months of death and renewal. But heat and fire are the purgatives that see out the old year rather than cold. So it still makes sense to begin the new year in January. (In fact, I think Christmas and new year are a much bigger deal here, since they coincide with the start of the summer holidays.)

  11. Parts of Australia doesn’t die in the winter – although Melbourne, Canberra and Hobart can go subzero, in Perth 20degC and sunny is common. After the rushing around leading up to Christmas, the end of December and January is a languid time as people relax in the heat, then build up momentum for the rest of the year.

  12. Kinsley and James: Now I have to visit Australia :) And NZ.