I’ve spent this winter living in an unheated, uninsulated, unfinished house. Most years this would not be a big deal — Central Texas sees snow once a decade, rarely more than an inch, with average low temperatures in the upper 30s — but the Polar Vortex has changed the game. It’s a new and different cold, fierce and unfamiliar. The wind, such a gift in the hot months, whips through our clothes and bites at our skin. We can’t escape it: no insulation means that my construction zone of a house gets only a few degrees warmer than the outside air. We’re essentially winter camping all of the time, and I feel more aware of Nature’s intensity than ever before. 

I hadn’t realized I’d grown so disconnected from my environment. I grew up in a house without air-conditioning or central heat; I took frequent camping trips; I lived in a tent for many summers as a camp counselor; I drove a motorcycle in all weather. And yet, during adulthood I managed to get just as climate-controlled as everyone else, spending my days indoors losing my ability to tolerate heat and cold. I might not have gotten my acclimatization back had it not been forced upon me.

icy morning

My imagination of how my ancestors lived has become informed by this experience. We’re living like they did: minimal shelter from the elements and no plumbing. We perform our toilette in the cold (chamber pot, pitcher and ewer) and have come to know the vital importance of using hot water bottles in the bed. We wear layers even to sleep — wool socks and hats, sock and glove liners, and silk long johns — and I think of all those generations of humanity conceived not through modern lovemaking, naked in warm houses, but with both parties mostly clothed. No wonder so many babies arrived in the warm months!

Humanity began in hot, sun-drenched lands and I understand why: until we developed tools and shelter, we would not have survived anywhere else. So many of us go from car to building and back again, spending maybe ten minutes outside in the weather; we don’t know what it means to have no recourse against it. (Even we, during this winter experiment, can always go somewhere to warm up.) I have an increased respect for those peoples who came before, and those who live in the cold still. As a book person I often make the mistake of accepting read knowledge in favor of experiential knowledge, so I am grateful to have this experience in my body.

I wonder what my daughter will remember from these days. Perhaps my litany of questions — do you have enough layers on; where are your gloves; do you need wool socks today; does your skin feel chilled? Or perhaps she’ll remember burrowing under the covers to stay warm (I check on her twelve times a night, I swear. I worry about her getting chilblains in her sleep). Maybe she’s just accepted it as normal. She already spends most of her day outside at her forest kindergarten; I imagine that this is just more of the same.

All of us have acclimated. I went from being a person who always felt cold to being able to wear only a jacket and hat in 50-degree weather. My daughter and husband have ferocious metabolisms but they’ve learned that even they need layers for prolonged exposure. I complain about it sometimes, after a week of frozen pipes and icy nights, but I’m grateful in a way, too. If I’d known I could be so hardcore I might have designed my house to be unheated and uncooled: even in this area, intelligent design can solve a lot of problems. (Even so, coldest winter on record is easier to survive than hottest summer on record around here.) We went winter camping recently and it didn’t seem that different from being at home. In some ways I liked it better, since we had a hearth fire.

The turning of Brid has real meaning for us this year. Her return means that winter, this deepest and truest experience of winter, will come to an end. I long for spring more than ever in my life. I will celebrate the first new shoots with fervent gratitude. Hail Brigid! May your blessing be upon us.