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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Below Zero

The expected high temperature for today, here in Minnesota, is ten degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. This is not a weather report; this is something between bragging and complaining.

Over the next few days we’ll see temperatures such as might be encountered on the surface of the planet Mars. The wind chills can reach forty below zero and worse. This is the kind of weather that will inflict frostbite on exposed skin within fifteen minutes, the kind that brings serious risk of losing one’s ‘bits’ on prolonged exposure and brings death to those who can find no refuge.

I’m just as glad to be living in a part of the country where hurricanes, tidal waves and earthquakes are not a concern, but we have the extremes of winter and we’ve learned to handle them. (Canadians may scoff, but no one else). Those of us who grew up here learned early how to dress in layers, to value our mittens, gloves, knitted caps and scarves. And we are sincere in our gratitude for warm homes and caring community, as these are all that stand between us and the frigid night.

At the same time, we are human. People get on each others’ nerves; we can get cabin fever when pent up in closed spaces for long periods, as happens for those whose employment does not demand a commute and are not inclined to brave the elements to participate in winter sports. (Myself, I’m more into archery and fencing than skiing, snow-mobiles or ice-fishing.)

When even taking a casual walk becomes a trial of endurance, it’s well to look with renewed appreciation on the merits of civility and on indoor activities. Civility enables us to exist together in peace. The internet, games, music, story-telling, books and other media give us distractions and entertainment during periods of confinement; arts and handicrafts (from cooking to app designing) give us preoccupation. It’s in the face of winter that these fruits of civilization prove their true worth.

Jean Briggs’ ‘Never in Anger’ is assigned reading in many a college anthropology course. In this exploration of Inuit culture, the author emphasizes the strong value the Inuit family placed on controlling anger in favor of preserving the social bonds on which survival in the arctic environment depended. The Inuits necessarily spent long periods confined together indoors and spent much of that time in story-telling and game playing.

It’s the tension between the demands of civility and the frustrations of interpersonal conflict that inspired my middle-grade reader story, ‘The Winter Knife’ (as yet unpublished). Winter is such a major element of the story that it is practically a character in itself. Old north woods’ logger lore tells of a creature that travels under the snow to stalk its prey. The fourteen-year-old heroine of the story befriends such a creature when it’s a pup. The conflict comes to a crisis during the worst winter in Minnesota history, when extreme temperatures drive the creature to join her in the city, where their emotional bond leads it to see her ‘enemies’ as its prey.

What does a young girl do when her anger threatens the survival of everyone important to her? How does she save her wild creature friend from her community, and her community from the wild creature?