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Sub-Zero Tolerance

The needle on my thermometer has been floating around zero a lot lately. My woodstove is thick with the hot glow of orange-red coals and it hungrily converts backyard stacks of fuel (lugged in by the armful) into heat and ash. Ice leaves short-lived crystalline patterns on the inside of a storm window, sparkling and reflecting short glimmers of light until the morning sun heats things up enough to melt the fractal geometry into a streak of condensation. The icy trench out to the woodpile looks more like a luge run than a footpath.

Outside, the gardens are buried, the deep snow smoothing edges into slight slopes. The white surface is broken here and there by sticks and branch trellises that once supported tender vegetables and flowering vines, which now are the stuff of my winter fantasies. The last salad I picked was on Thanksgiving. My preferred mode of transportation, my bicycle, hasnít left its shed since around the time of that last salad.

The end of January and February are the toughest winter months for me. George W.ís war threats and the mounting cold of continuous days below freezing accompanied by arctic winds havenít made things any easier. Winter is about one-third through, but itís not giving much sign it plans to lighten up soon. Regardless of how bad the weather gets, spring will eventually come. I find some solace in that simple inevitability. In the interim, there are some winter activities I engage in that help me survive the seasonís freeze.

Staying warm is one of my most urgent winter activities. It involves keeping the stove hot with a steady feed of wood (biomass), wearing thick hiking socks, layering clothes, eating hot food and drinking too much coffee. Feeding the stove entails short treks to the woodpile outdoors, which requires more layers of clothes: the addition of boots, gloves and a warm hat to insulate my body against the cold. With all the additional clothing needed to go outside, I look about twice my normal size.

With the cold spell weíve been having lately Iíve been firing up my secondary heating system, a natural gas boiler with water-filled radiators, for a few hours each evening. I put in a high-efficiency system a few years back and once I get it heated up I can turn down the thermostat to shut it off and the radiators will continue to give off heat for hours. Behind each radiator Iíve placed a sheet of foil-covered insulation to reflect heat and form a buffer against the cold wall.

I have more than 40 houseplants scattered throughout my home that help to add moisture to the dry inside air. These plants also provide me with a hopeful bit of vegetative life to tend in a world of leafless trees and frozen earth. Their need for light leads me to maximize the natural light coming into my home during the day, which is good for both me and the plants. On a shelf above my kitchen sink Iím cloning some of these plants, rooting cuttings in clear, cylinder-shaped glass vases. The patterns of root growth are interesting and provide a living contrast to the frozen cold outside. I will eventually pot the plants for gifts and/or repatriate them with their mother plants for added size and vigor.

I have installed insulating shades over most of the windows in my house. I keep some of these translucent white shades closed for the entire winter because there is little light passing through their windows during the day. They are on tracks and fit snugly into the window frame, cutting down on the cool breezes generated by cold window glass even with the good storm windows I have in place. I open most of the shades in the morning to let the dayís solar energy in and close them at night to reduce heat loss.

While I may be consuming a bit more fair-trade coffee during these cool days, I have reduced the energy input into the brew. My girlfriend, Mary Anne, gave me a hand-cranked coffee grinder as a holiday gift. It replaced an electric one that sounded like a dental drill for elephants. Hand-ground coffee is supposed to be more flavorful, as well as making a small reduction in my electricity usage. I guess my coffee is now more energy efficient.

During this time, Iíve also begun planning for my 2003 gardens. Iíve been looking through a stack of colorful seed catalogues, thumbing through and organizing the packets of seeds I have from prior seasons and checking on the seeds I saved from last yearís plants. The seed catalogues provide bright spring fantasy material as I start sketching garden plans. Iíve also been cleaning up all the plastic trays and containers I use to start seeds. Most of these containers have been reused through a number of growing seasons. In February, I will start some cold-hardy salad greens indoors so they will be ready for an early spring transfer to the garden.

Iíve been outside a little more than usual this winter. The war mongering of George W. has provided an additional set of winter outdoor activity opportunities. Demonstrations against his planned war in Iraq and his devastating economic, environmental and energy policies have led to more winter street activities then Iíve seen since the Vietnam War days. Demonstrating in frigid weather requires plenty of layers of clothes (get out the thermal underwear), good boots, warm socks and well-insulated gloves and hats. A thermos of hot tea or coffee can also help outdoor activists stay warm.

In an earlier column this year, I provided an internet location for a great area peace and social justice calendar that can now be found at Check it out for the latest selection of area winter anti-war activities or give the Social Justice Center a call at 434-4037. Stay warm and stay active!

óTom Nattell

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