Woodchuck Dreams: Field Notes From the Frozen North

Here’s a recent essay by one of my oldest friends, illustrated by her husband, Bob Fisher. The essay originally appeared in Blueline 43. It may not be reprinted in whole or in part without permission of the author. — J.R.

Bibi Wein

The first snow bedazzles. Overnight, it has transformed our brooding boreal woods into an enchanted forest. I rush around and look at everything: the familiar contours of the land reshaped and luminous, the frost a billion stars twinkling on the hemlock needles in the sunlight. In this incandescent world middle age falls away for a moment, and I am once again the girl of so many decades past, my energies ignited by a spark of freedom and discovery that city girl never knew.


Three days later, I ponder the beauty of blizzards. I must admit I love a storm, though it can make me anxious if I’m alone. In winter, that’s rare these days in the log cabin I share with my husband Bob. The isolation of two is very different from the isolation of one.  With the protection of shelter and companionship, a storm turns me back into a child. Snowed in, all work is off, especially if the power fails. A blizzard provides an excuse to play, if you know how. Always a big if for me. In my real childhood, the verb to play meant practicing the violin. I knew its common meanings for other people, but I was in my thirties before I could begin to penetrate the briar-tangle  of habit and guilt that barred applying them to me.

This snow makes me feel domestic and adventurous, calm and excited. How to live this day? Which of its many fruits to pluck? I want to make soup and bake bread and go out and wander as far the storm will permit…Or just sit by the fire, watching the chickadees and nuthatches in their constant dance about the feeder.  A writing deadline looms, but my editor works 3,000 miles west. I consider pretending the power is out. If she tries to check in, she’ll never know I’m playing hooky. For once, I’m glad that our dead-end dirt road, currently inhabited by only two human families, will be one of the last the town will plow.

Before the days of modern snow removal, snow pretty much stayed where it fell here in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. People likewise stayed put, denned up for months. “Men were considered improvident if they did not have their supply of pork, potatoes and meal in the house in the fall, enough to outlast the winter,” wrote our town historian. “…. if a family needed a little salt, or ‘sody’ or ‘tobaccy’ it could be brought in on snowshoes.”  School calendars paralleled the vicissitudes of the seasons. And our sparsely populated township, geographically one of the region’s largest, built half a dozen one-room schoolhouses — their foundations’ stony bones are still visible along old roads — so that most students had only a few miles to walk.

Long, cold, snowy winters in the Adirondacks are no longer the norm. But they still occur, and when they do, climate change deniers aren’t the only ones to ask “If the world is really warming up, how come it’s so damn cold?” In February 2014, a New York Times op ed writer posed this question. He went on to explain what any scientist would tell you: record cold snaps and seemingly endless storms confirm rather than belie consensus about the nature of a warming earth. Alaskan biologist Bill Streever put it succinctly in his 2009 book, Cold, “Our world warms, but cold remains.”


We’ve been away from the cabin for a week. We usually fill the bird feeder first thing when we’ve been gone. This time Bob and I arrive at dusk to the unpleasant surprise of a cold furnace. Weary and nursing sniffles, we’re distracted as we stoke up the wood stove and arrange an emergency propane fill, and let the birds go hungry.

At 6:30 the next morning, I raise the shade and startle the juncos that nestle against the house at night. They dash about, half a dozen of them, as if playing, near the empty feeder. It’s 8 degrees (F.) and I can’t yet muster the energy to unlock the shed to get to the bird seed and balance my way across the icy lawn. I come up with a bag of rock-hard bread, stuff it into a second plastic bag, find a meat mallet and pound it into crumbs. In my nightgown and slippers I step outside to scatter it, and I’m struck by a particular clean, balsam-sharp smell that brings back the thrill of our first winter visits to the North Country, recall a joy I’d all but forgotten. And I want to be out there in the cold, the magnificent, regenerative cold!

Bob and I discovered the Adirondacks on hiking trips with my brother and his wife, who bought a house here before we did. It was a small three-bedroom house, but the four of us, plus our three tweenage children and often a guest or two, all piled in together. Leaving our Manhattan jobs as early as we could on a Friday night, we rarely reached the end of the 250-mile drive before midnight. The children, sensibly, went right to bed, while we grownups got flashlights and searched for tracks in the snow, listened for owls, or just stood on the lawn, transfixed by the clarity of the winter constellations, inhaling balsam-scented winter

We’d smelled it as soon as we got out of our cars at the convenience store that was our pit stop on those Friday nights. Even mixed with wood smoke from homes in the nearby town and gasoline from the pumps where we were tanking up, the smell of the northern air transformed the journey’s tedium to the excitement of “Almost there!”

That balsam-laden bite in our nostrils was at least in part of what prompted us to struggle with the complicated straps of our first snowshoes, take 10-mile treks to remote ponds on freezing days, head into the snowy woods without flashlights late on moonlit nights after big meals and hours of talk and music. No matter how harsh the conditions, we were always loath to return to lives in which we didn’t have to give a thought to hauling firewood or managing testy stoves and struggling vehicles, never had to pay the slightest attention to what it took to stay warm or get around.

After years of searching for our own place, Bob and I fell in love with a small log cabin built in the 1950s from pine and cedar cut from the land. The trout stream that flows past the edge of the lawn runs for miles through our isolated valley, linking up with a river that eventually meets the Hudson. For fifteen years, Bob and I spent July and August here, with only the occasional winter week or weekend to taste the season at its best and worst: an aurora one November night, a freak October blizzard, a raucous and thrilling February ice break-up on the stream, a weekend with houseguests and frozen pipes. Every hardship was an adventure. I wanted more winter. All of it. And I’d become fascinated by trying to understand how life — all life, including ours — persists through deep, persistent cold. My work was portable, and when Bob decided to retire early from his teaching job, we were both eager to live here year-round.


Overnight snowstorm. Power out. I wake in the dark house with the kind of headache that tells me the barometer is falling: pain is mild, but confusion and clumsiness bring challenge to the simplest acts. It takes me a while to figure out how to light my way to the basement to get bottled water and make coffee. We have been through this many times, of course. But did we prepare? I’m not sure there are jugs of water in the basement until my flashlight finds them.  As the day progresses, the sky remains so leaden I can hardly see to write by the brightest window. But then I lift my head and see that the juncos have returned with the snow, as usual, and I feel fine.

Other birds visit as well: chickadees and nuthatches are daily guests; this week a single feisty pine siskin holds his own among flocks of bluejays three times his size. Goldfinches in drab winter plumage, house finches and brilliant purple finches become as common as chickadees later in the winter. Occasionally there’s the marvel of a rose-breasted grosbeak. And a new delight: the redpolls that usually winter in Canada apparently prefer the Adirondacks at times, and in recent years have added their flash of crimson to the snow-hardy crowd. 

I wonder where the mice hide by day, those soft little brown mice with white feet and large dark eyes. They pilfer the fringe from the throw rugs and take a single bite of  any piece of fruit we’ve neglected to store behind closed doors. Are there bark beetles or carpenter ants cozying up inside our log walls? Considering how many creatures are out there, cold and hungry, we’re lucky more of them haven’t eaten their way in.


I fill the bird feeder and say to Bob “the chickadees are happy,” and of course I don’t know if they are, or what happiness would mean to them if they were. But in the rhythm of their nonstop circuit to the feeder from the nearby hemlocks and balsams, snatch a seed and back again, I see happiness. What I’m really seeing is a demonstration of the urgency with which all creatures approach food in a time of scarcity.

The black-capped chickadee, half an ounce or less of hyperactive black and white fluff, must increase her body weight by 10% each day to survive one winter night. She appears to eat nonstop. But what she’s actuallydoing is more like shopping. Rather than scarfing down all those seeds, she’s carrying them off and stashing them in myriad tiny caches, here there and everywhere, sometimes over many acres.  

Like the chickadee, I am a scatter hoarder, with stuff stockpiled everywhere along my 250-mile linear range. Okay, not everywhere, only in three places: the cabin and the studio we built 100 yards up the hill, and the apartment we still keep in Manhattan. My caches consist primarily of books and papers and clothing, much of the latter outdated and too small, for every likely temperature and unlikely occasion. As the winter progresses, occasions of any kind become increasingly improbable.

I recall again how we hated to leave the cabin, no matter what the weather, in those years when we had no choice. Back in Manhattan, I’d wonder what uncommon bird visitations I’d would miss at the feeder. On clear, cold nights, might there be an aurora? On a warmish day would the stream’s thick ice break up with crashing drama? Would it refreeze? I knew I’d never be able to actually watch it freeze, yet I half-believed this might be possible. It was like walking out of a cinematic thriller before the end. I wanted to see what was going to happen.

Now I know what will happen. It will snow.  Not always a lot. Often, just enough to put a light panko crust on the car and create a little slide under every footstep. Just enough to keep the sky white and banish the sun. By the end of February, I’ve  joined some of my non-human neighbors in a state of torpor. Even in April we could get a blizzard, turning our cabin into a snow globe, so pretty from the outside, but from the inside, confining. No longer delighting in freedom, confined is all I feel stuffing myself into layers of clothing topped by hoods, hats, scarves, every time I step outside. But out I go.


Wandering our deserted road just after a snowstorm, I’d feel alone in the universe if I didn’t know better. The woods are spookily quiet. No birds. No tracks. Where is everybody?  I’ve seen red foxes, coyotes, fishers and pine martens, minks and otters, porcupines, and of course white-tailed deer in these winter woods. Not today. During the storm, or perhaps before it began, birds and animals tucked themselves away in secret shelters, and they’ve yet to emerge. A ruffed grouse will dig itself a burrow for riding out bad weather, and stay for several days if necessary. Mice, voles, and shrews scurry in and out of their subnivian retreats as conditions permit. These sanctuaries are literally microclimates, where it’s not only calm and dry but warmer than the surface air.  

When temperatures are cold and food is scarce, every creature that overwinters adapts in order to survive. Some, like the snowshoe hare, thicken their coats and change their color. The hare is white now, but he was a big brown guy last summer when I watched him hop across the lawn to eat our garden. For years, I’ve seen his distinctive oval footprints everywhere in the snow. Now, in a thrilling moment (for me, not likely for the rabbit), there he is in his white coat, speeding along an invisible bunny trail in a huge hurry. I can’t help thinking of his fictional counterpart looking at the pocketwatch he’s taken from his waistcoat and proclaiming “I’m late! I’m late.” 

The mourning dove I saw pecking near the bird feeder this morning looked like she’d swallowed a football. Secured beneath the unlikely contours of her fluffed-up feathers there’s a microclimate of warm air against her skin.  Other creatures warm themselves by huddling together in communal burrows. Such winter housing, often constructed by a woodchuck, might be shared by other small mammals, including  prickly porcupines, in their separate apartments. Some birds, like the American robin, tough out the season by roosting in flocks that disperse in spring. I haven’t observed humans flocking together in the Adirondacks, famous for its hermits. But as I recall winter parties in the Hamptons in the 1970s, spiced with wine and cannabis and sexual intrigue, common sense tells me such human flocking must occur here, too. Just not in our demographic.

Even in locations inches apart — out in the open, compared, say, to a slight depression beneath an evergreen shrub — the temperature can differ by 10 degrees or more. For wildlife, temporary shelter in a warmer spot can mean the difference between life and death. Sometimes I wonder if the same may be true for me.

We two in this cabin huddle alone together. In the southwest corner of the loft, where the prehistoric cathode ray TV resides, we retreat to our microclimate, at once a cozy shelter from, and our link to, the outside world.


I try to picture subnivian life. There’s so much of it, from tiny snow fleas to fat woodchucks, but the creatures in my mind’s eye are the chipmunks, my summer companions, now curled up deep under snow. They sleep a lot in the narrow tunnels they  dug in warmer times, but wake frequently enough to need the contents of their pantries, stocked primarily with sunflower seeds collected below my bird feeder. From late August through September I watched them scurrying back and forth at a frantic pace, their cheeks puffed to golf-ball size with all the seeds they could carry. I picture them curled into furry balls now, snug and content no matter how cold it gets, their busy lives on hold.

On hold can mean many things — from the chipmunk’s long naps to the chickadee’s nightly slow-down of torpor, to the bear’s deeper sleep of hibernation. Torpor is an adaptive physiological state that helps many creatures survive the  unrelenting cold of a northeastern winter. Conserving energy by slowing her heart rate and breath, a tiny chickadee can get some sleep of a winter’s night. Torpor has much in common with hibernation, the state in which black bears doze for months without a meal, thanks to the five inches of extra body fat they packed on before bedding down.  

Torpor is what I struggle with each winter afternoon, and if it is adaptive for humans, would someone please explain? To me, winter torpor feels different from the lassitude and enervation of the occasional hot, tropically humid summer day. Whatever I do or don’t do on those hot summer days — and there are more of them with each passing year — I’m uncomfortable in both mind and body. But winter torpor in the warm cabin is all too comfortable, all sensations pointing to sleep.

In his classic Winter World, naturalist Berndt Heinrich writes that there is physiologically no difference between months of hibernation and daily torpor, while behaviors vary widely. In torpor some birds are unresponsive to most things happening around them, but researchers have learned the hard way that bears in the deeper state of hibernation may react readily to being disturbed by probing humans. There is such a huge range in the duration and depth of torpor and hibernation, not only between species but also in response to conditions, that Heinrich shuns all-inclusive definitions. “Each animal’s choices,” he says, “fit in somewhere in a long continuum of almost anything that can be measured or imagined.” 

Streever tells us that woodchucks and marmots and their relatives enter “a non-hibernating sleep that allows them to dream.” To dream? I wish his end notes told me how we know this! And what does a woodchuck dream? My imaginings are limited to the obvious: Munching fresh grasses in early spring? Dining in vegetable gardens in August? If those dreaming woodchucks include Punxutawny Phil, who is ceremoniously removed from his den each February 2 in an eponymous Pennsylvania town to “predict” an early spring or a prolonged winter, I fancy the content of his dreams might include freedom from this annual indignity.


Further straining the limits of my imagination is the deep freeze engineered by some insects, caterpillars and frogs. Several kinds of North American frogs, including spring peepers, are able to survive the winter frozen solid. Well, not really solid. But you’d think so. Streever, who refers to them as “Frogsicles” says, “Pick them up and they are hard as ice. They are, in fact, largely ice.” Up to two-thirds of the water in their bodies may be frozen, while glucose, in high concentrations apparently developed over a series of early-season freezes and thaws, protects frozen tissues from damage. There have been some February days  when I’ve wondered if these frozen frogs are having more fun than Bob and I are in our 700-square-foot hibernaculum.

Seasonal residence is a historic human adaptation in the Adirondacks: no one lived here year-round until the late eighteenth century. Native tribes made seasonal camps for hunting and fishing, but kept more permanent homes elsewhere. The first non-native settlers remained near the shores of Lake Champlain rather than venturing into the colder interior, where there was minimal permanent settlement before the 1840s.

The humans who winter best here are the most physically active — not altogether unlike the chickadees and the perpetual motion machines we call red squirrels. And our neighbors who happily ski or snowshoe their way through the season aren’t necessarily young. I’ve known folks who hit the slopes daily in their nineties. I once thought I might eventually be one of them. I even imagined myself as one of those hardy souls who, in their sixties, hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end. But I didn’t turn out that way. In my late forties, my strong hiking legs softened after I cracked my pelvis in a stupid fall on a city street. Couchbound for a month and on crutches for three more, I never got those tough legs back. My fingers, no matter how heavily gloved, throb with pain on freezing days, and my neck crunches into painful spasms after an hour or so in moderate cold.  Bob, on the other hand, is a cold-hardy guy. He’s outside with telescope and cameras on every clear night, indulging his passion for astrophotography. As the temperature drops, his equipment gives out before he does.  As I’ve aged, I love the mesmerizing fall of snow, the velvet silences, the power of the storm as much as ever. But I’m daunted by the season’s obstacles to free movement. I’d imagined the physical restrictions of the long winter would be balanced by the rewards of meditative calm and solitary work. Instead, there is only restlessness, resistance to the inevitability of torpor. As Edward Snowden told an interviewer early in his exile, I am not an indoor cat.


The cabin is barricaded by mountains of snow — the snow that’s been piled up by the plow, the snow that fell or was shoveled from the roof, creating a shallow moat against the cabin walls where the juncos shelter. The sun peeks through only the very tops of our windows. I feel like I’m living in a cave or an igloo. Bob shovels for half a day just so we can circumnavigate the house. I remind myself that it was only relatively recently that rural folks began to expect to leave the winter homestead on a regular basis. In the early years of the automobile, cars were put up in barns on the first of November, and remained there until the snow was gone. In May? June?


About the time Punxutawney Phil sees his shadow, I hear a lot of chatter about an early spring. Perhaps wishful thinking is a kind of adaptation too. Friends say they’ve seen birds migrating. Robins flocking by the hundreds. I suspect these robins may not be migrators, but overwintering birds making test flights from the deep woods. But I’ve also seen skeins of smaller birds on the move, unidentifiable dark shapes against the slate dusk sky. If they are migrating to the scarcely thawing north at this way-too-early date, is it because they are confused, in this particular winter, by the frozen south? If these are indeed early birds, where will they find the worm?

It’s been established that Northeastern winters are getting shorter at both ends, averaging two weeks shorter in many places. A longer growing season seems a blessing of climate change if spring is more likely to come sooner than later. Half a dozen times I planted and failed to grow butterfly weed, which flourishes twenty miles south of here. In 2019, I finally succeeded in adding its striking tangerine-colored flowers to my perennial bed, where it does better with every passing year.  But it is utterly wrongheaded to feel blessed, even for a moment, by any impact of climate change, which presents some potential threat to every species on earth, including mine.       

Birds?  The losses in every biome have already been considerable — 33% over the last 50 years in our boreal forests alone. Not all these losses are due to climate change, but all can be traced to human activities that destroy or damage habitat. In North America these include suburban sprawl, logging, and agricultural practices that favor monoculture and pesticides —all of which pale against the massive habitat devastation in the southern hemisphere that has taken a huge toll on migrators. It’s been a decade since we’ve heard the hermit thrushes whose ethereal songs once lilted on the summer air from dusk into the night. I don’t know exactly why they’re gone, and I can’t get myself to accept the likelihood that I will never hear them here again. The impacts of species loss on humans may be subtle or potentially life-threatening: When birds leave an area, whether by extinction or adaptation, the insects they consumed can thrive, leading to an upswing in all manner of diseases, known and unknown…and around it goes.

 I fret equally about the future of plants, despite evidence in my own garden of species that have expanded their range in the warming world. Numerous plant species have co-evolved with the insects that pollinate them, and depend on a precise synchronization of bloom-time with the arrival of their pollinators. But as plants flower earlier, botanists find increasing evidence that this impressive balancing act won’t continue for all. Other plant species simply require winter’s cold. The genetic programming of certain fruit trees  – Washington D.C,’s famous cherries, for example — demands a period of low temperatures if they are to blossom and set fruit. Botanists fear winters may not be cold enough, or cold long enough to allow for vernalization  –-  the mechanism by which cold and dormancy prepare plants for flowering. If only there were some parallel process of winter regeneration in the physiology of temperate-living humans!


In the post office on a February morning, I pull a thick pile of mail from our box and a small postcard falls to the floor. As I bend to retrieve it, the bold-face words SELF STORAGE pop out. Somewhere in the remote interstices of my mind, I recognize that these words refer to a rentable space that enables us to put some of the “stuff” of life on hold. But as I pick up that postcard, what I see is a fortune cookie, a tarot card, an oracle: My self in winter storage.

I must take myself out before I become again the lonely child, who, when not indoors practicing music, passed the long summer days reading novels on a shady urban porch. Impatient for evening when — with kids who’d spent their days at camp — I chased fireflies in the alleyways between our pocket-handkerchief backyards.


Late afternoon. I’m sitting in near darkness at the front window of the cabin,  considering plotting an escape from the Adirondacks, when something huge streaks through the air and perches in a hemlock tree. At the edge of a dark, snow-laden branch, the snowy owl, a stripey black and white juvenile, is well-camouflaged but not sufficiently to defeat my binoculars before she displays her six-foot wingspan and disappears across the stream into the oncoming night. 

It’s for moments like this that I am here: for the chance I might witness such miracles as the deep northern winter might reveal.

Listening to the wind shrill through the pines, I picture spring’s crocuses hiding beneath the snow. I wonder if my own adaptations will be sufficient to keep me here through yet another full turning of the seasons, to bear witness as the world warms, as cold persists.


Bibi Wein


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