Right now London is ‘cold’, and really, it is cold. I feel it, I shiver, I pile on the sweaters. But I also know it isn’t really cold – no one will die, there will be no frostbite, cars are starting. Today in my hometown it is -47 with the wind chill. I remember cold….and its not this.
So what is cold?
Cold is extreme. The cold of my childhood was deep, dry, bitter – it was nuanced. Where we were, cold wasn’t complained about, it was accepted and borne. Complaining about the cold would be like complaining about the ocean – it was just as immoveable and immense. Complaining about cold was something people from ‘down south’ did. In a cold country, we prided ourselves on being able to handle the worst of it, an ionvisible badge of honour.
Cold is dark. The cold in Northern Canada cannot be separated from the dark. In December the sun rises lazily between 11am and noon, and after a mere 2 hours or so of full sunlight would descend again just as slowly. While it may be dark in London when we wake and when we begin our journeys home, but we do not work for hours before the sun rises or hours after it sets. I remember having jetlag in Yellowknife last December and waking at 530am every morning. I would be awake for almost 7 hours before full daylight.
Cold is respected. My parents only spoke of the cold in warnings. My mother, on those mornings when it dipped below -35 would wake me up, in that deep dark, with a whisper:
“Please dress really warm today, it’s very, very cold.” These were not overprotective maternal flutterings but code for: if you don’t dress warm enough you’ll get frostbite during recess. Or worse. 1-2 people died every winter – usually from passing out drunk in the snow.
When I was 13, my father decided he and I would visit my uncle’s cabin for the weekend. I can’t remember where my brother was, or why my mother didn’t come – but I remember he read aloud Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea from cover to cover over the weekend. It was never above -30 the whole time we were there, the cabin was heated by wood stove and the outhouse was about 100m outside – not fun at 3am.
When we arrived at the cabin we started the fire and headed down the road to call on friends who lived in a more permanent cabin. We sat in their comfortable, warm, wood panelled house waiting for our cabin to warm and they told me stories of teaching swimming lessons in the aboriginal communities in the 70s before we headed back for the evening. They later told us they were sure we would come back before the night was out to kip at theirs – too cold! But we didn’t – we cooked burgers and I listened to my dad read aloud and we woke up at 3am and 5am to stoke the fire. On the drive home my boots had gotten sweaty and lost their insulation and I had frost bite on my toes by the time we got there.
This cold is also silent. The insulation necessary to protect your body (2 pairs of socks, sorel polar boots, long under wear, trousers, snow trousers, undershirt, shirt, sweater, parka, neck warmer, toque, mittens, hood, scarf around it all) means that outdoors you hear only your own breath, heartbeat and boots in the snow. Insulated buildings muffle any sounds from the already quiet streets, the dogs stop barking and it feels as if colder air doesn’t carry sound.
The cold is mysterious. When wind blew, especially above the tree line, it howled and whistled. My Inuktitut teacher Tyna was able to make the wind echo her whistles – short series of mournful tones. We would wait, with bated breath to see if the wind would answer back. It always did – exactly the same pattern. I may have been young, and sceptics may scoff, but this is a clear memory for me – we were all amazed. These are things that can only happen when its -40.