Subnivian – now there’s a word I’d never heard, let alone used, until I started reading Bernd Heinrich’s “Winter World,” a wonderful natural history about how animals survive the winter. The word isn’t even among the 260,000 in my “Unabridged Random House Dictionary of the England Language.” There’s “nival,” “nivation” and “niveous,” but no “subnivian.”
“Subnivian” simply means “beneath the snow,” which is where most of us are at the moment. About 6 1/2 feet of snow have fallen so far this season and most of it is in my back yard.
The snow bank against the north side of the house is about 8 feet tall, threatening to cover the bathroom window. The path from my office to the bird feeder is becoming a tunnel. I’m beginning to feel like one of the mice that created the network of subnivian passageways from the house to the feeder. Months from now I’ll have discovered little caches of black oil sunflower seeds in unexpected places all over the basement – old musty backpacks, rarely used boots, boxes of lightly gnawed files.
The last place the snow melts is that dark corner beside the sun porch steps where the sun never shines and a stunted rhododendron shivers beneath a mountain of snow shoveled off the roof. One more good snowstorm and I won’t need a ladder to get up there. Looking at it now it seems impossible to think that the snow pile will ever melt, that daylilies will eventually be fluttering again next to the steps.
This time of year, the woods deep with snow, I start wondering how the animals survive, hence “Winter World.” Heinrich has nothing to say, however, about the deer whose tracks cross the rail bed and lead to the nibbled arbor vitae along the back fence. Nor does he tell me how the wild turkeys are doing on their winter roosts. There is a nice chapter though on the frogs frozen beneath the ice of the pond. With glucose as antifreeze in their bloodstreams, the sweet frogs sleep the winter away. It will be months yet before they thaw, awake and start announcing spring (and their arousal) with their randy amphibian chorus.
Hibernation is starting to sound very attractive to me. The combination of the cold, the snow, and the economy has conspired to make this a hard winter for everyone. I’d just as soon sleep this one off, but apparently that’s not an option.
According to Heinrich, deer mice can’t hibernate either, but the little critters have evolved a survival strategy that Carolyn and I may subconsciously have adopted – build a nest, huddle together, go into a state of torpor. Deer mice practice brumation, a torpid state of winter sluggishness designed to conserve energy. So do we.
This winter, Carolyn and I have gotten into the bad habit of allowing our dog Rudy, 60 pounds of heat, to sleep on the foot of the bed with us – “us” being Carolyn and me and the cat. By the time I get into bed, the three of them have warmed the flannel sheets enough so that I don’t even need bed socks. But, man, it’s getting hard to get out of bed in the morning. And, as soon as I do, Rudy takes my place.
Nutsy, the cat, however, is the true Queen of Torpor. She has managed to reduce her existence to sleeping all day on one of the girls’ beds upstairs, coming down for supper and a bit of socializing in the evening, then retiring to sleep on Carolyn’s chest all night. Sounds like a good life to me. Wake me when the grass is green.
The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.