Walking Below Zero
The freezing sensation in your nostrils as soon as you step outdoors; your just-showered hair forming its own polar icecap upon your head; your fingers and feet, thickly gloved and socked, beginning to scream in pain. A walk below zero makes your thoughts shelter ever-further inward, cozying up against the hearth of your heart; yet even thinking feels exhausting. A moment drags to a minute, a minute to 20 in the slowing temperament of snow and soft light.
There I was in the forests of Finland, early in January. For weeks, daily temperatures barely rose above the 0°F mark — if at all. On some nights, it got as cold as minus-22°F, and that’s before windchill. The days between barely qualified as such, instead transitioning from sunrise to sunset over five-six hours without a middle point, the light seeming to fall below the horizon almost as soon as it had ascended. Your own inner light and inner energy weaken too, outweighed by the heavy reality of oncoming and ongoing darkness.
Being an outdoors-lover, experiencing the frigid Finnish lands and atmospheres was a unique and unforgettable experience. The Arteles artist residency that brought me there was themed “silence, awareness, existence” — apt thoughts to carry with you into the quiet surrounding forests. Unlike Americans — for whom wilderness is a regulated freedom contained within discreet segments, cordoned by property lines, and protected by rangers and volunteers — the forests of Finland, covering over 70 percent of the land, belong to the Finns as a people. The Finns believe in jokamiehenoikeus, or Everyman’s Right: the freedom to roam and enjoy the forests recreationally and to use its resources, so long as it does not damage the forest or a person’s property. To them, the forests are a fact and fabric of the people, part of their culture and soul.
For those weeks, it became part of mine as well. The majority of my walks were short ambles through the nearest forest. At subzero temperatures, a short walk is a difficult and draining experience — 30 minutes was the maximum I could endure on one minus-17°F morning. One fellow resident went on a longer walk at similar temperatures and had to be rescued from fatigue; his beard had grown icicles.
Even in these relatively short strolls, both the physical and metaphysical intensity of walking intensifies. You become distinctly and even painfully aware of your fingers, toes, ears, extremities that in milder climates convey mere background information. All sensations and thoughts take on an intense physicality. Your focus narrows to the crystalline structures cracking across frozen creek beds, or the way the highest, pale white canopies illuminate like pink torches against the sunset, lest you be overwhelmed by the infinity of patterning splayed out in repeating trees.
You also get to witness what Southern California never sees, at least not at most elevations: the deep slumber of a winter forest. The forest itself seemed motionless, still, as if time stopped. Besides a few chirping great tits, there were no animals to see, though deer and moose prints covered the forest floor. If you are accustomed to hunt for animal trails in our own grassy backcountry, then the telltale nature of snow here may lend to your understanding of animal routes, as you can trace what trails the four-legged have trampled. Hibernating bears live there, but unseen. Cross-country travel opportunities abounded in the forest. The snow cover was so thick and steady that I could simply walk on top of bushes, and traveling on their backs gives a kind of weightlessness and floating ease.
The forest runs into roads and houses at its rims, and on one long and aimless walk, only the low orange glow of homes saved me from uncertain doom in the quickly darkening forest. Walking upon pavement is also an experience transformed at subzero temperatures. You account for every step with the understanding that the further you go, the longer you will be in the cold. Your body prepares to endure for as long as it can but is quick to shut down. You are keenly aware of your weirdness walking in the winter, and equally your insignificance, as cars barrel down the road. But within this you find renewed faith and feeling in the very activity of motion. You become aware of how every step matters, how every one is an effort. You renew your love for the breathing that keeps you alive and warm in your chest. You slow your speed and appreciate the distances you once thought were short and easily overcome. Farmland vistas stretch on as expansively and eloquently as painters’ dreams, sparse white vacancies to the dense and dark forest borders.
Walking at such low temperatures is a humbling experience. Awareness tapers to the most immediate of sensations: the air, the ground, the sounds surrounding and rebounding. You slow to the speed of silence and the soft fall of snow as you meditate on moss peeking through the thaw. You feel the outdoors in ways you’ve never felt it.
On one of my last days in Finland, I passed through the forest to a frozen lake, and I walked out on the ice, testing for weak parts. Finding a safe firmness, I lay down and felt enrapt: below me a bed of frozen water, above me a sky, frozen gray. A lake that could drown me at other times held me, and I felt cradled in the cold. But rare sensations like these come commonly below zero. In the dead of winter, I found a new appreciation for what it means to be alive.