When I was a boy growing up in Illinois, there were only a few days every winter when it got “so cold you could see your breath.” Seeing breath was something to remark upon in that time and place of my life. Now, half a century and a few thousand miles northwest, it seems remarkable that just seeing one’s breath could be cause for any comment at all, unless maybe it happened in mid-July, or unless I was watching the puffs of my breath while still tucked in a warm bed inside four walls and under a roof, as Kristen and I often have on winter mornings here in our succession of huts, cabins, and less-than-ultramodern houses.
But if you can hear your breath, well, then it is Cold. The first time I heard my breath was in the winter of 1990, here at the Hoarfrost, when the thermometer dipped to a new low – a record that still stands, over all the 80 years that official records have been kept for this part of the world, since the early 1940’s. Minus 54 at the Environment Canada station in Reliance, or 65 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Kristen and I were here at home, young and newly married, and definitely still seeing our breath on every winter morning when waking up in the drafty cabin we called home. The slender glass thermometer we checked that day was difficult to read but extremely accurate, being a spare given to us by the weather station meteorologists. When it said minus 54, it was minus 54, give or take a tenth of a degree at most.
To hear your breath, the air around you has to be truly and deeply cold. -49 Celsius seems to be the start of it. You need to stand perfectly still, out away from any other source of noise, and just exhale. It is a strange tsssh, not quite a shhh, because there is an odd crackling or shattering undertone to the sound, like the distant breaking of a thousand tiny crystal goblets. Again, breathe out. Tsssh. Tssh. When I first heard it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I walked a little way up the trail north of home, to look around, and I was somewhere near the place where our house now stands. I slowed my walk, and I heard it again. My footfalls, causing snow to settle in the drifts around me? Something up in the trees? An animal? What was that new and persistent soft tssh, tssh that I’d never heard before? Then I got it.
It was not the snow around me, not the trees, not something in the distance, but the water vapor of my every exhalation, crystallizing instantly in the puffs of my out-breaths.
I haven’t heard my breath for a couple of winters now. I did in 2017, up on the trail with a group of university students on a dogteam expedition. Anyway, it’s a good marker. If you can hear that sound, you know for a fact that it is fifty below C. or fifty-eight below F., or lower, and no thermometer is needed.
It was another cold morning, a few weeks back, so cold that I was listening for my breath. I was walking up to our new house after checking on the woodstove fire in the workshop, in the dim blue light that begins long before sunrise. It was almost hearing-your-breath cold, I was guessing, but in recent years we have not been able to find a thermometer that is worth a nickel when it gets truly cold. The fancy wireless weather station out near the fuel cache stops for good at a whimpy -41.4, Celsius, and the “Accu-Temp” made-in-China unit out on the front railing gives up long before that, at about minus thirty – even though the dial is marked down to minus sixty. I paused to listen for my breath, and confirmed that it couldn’t be heard, so I knew we were not to minus fifty yet.
Standing there listening, I saw our two familiar ravens gliding in from the north, from wherever they roost and wait out their long feather-puffed winter nights. (I had been appreciating feather-puffed fluff for myself, earlier that same morning, as I lay beneath a thick quilt stuffed with down plucked from some hapless geese.)
Their jet-black wings set and steady, twin gentle dihedrals, the raven pair made a soundless slow descent. The air was so cold and dense it was as if an invisible syrup had been poured over the landscape. In unison they banked in an arc over the barn and dog yard, checking it all out, then broke formation, one slipping to a touchdown on the top of a wooden fence slat and the other to a branch on a spruce just west of the dog yard.
Every morning this winter, at the first hint of daylight, they’ve been coming in. This tiny puff of woodsmoke here, our dogyard and our daily activity, make this their best bet for fifty miles in any direction, maybe more. They arrive, settle, puff up their feathers, wait and watch. And every day it pays off for them, somehow, sometime in the first hours of the morning. Some days there is a gift waiting right away, in the form of some food from the dogs’ evening meal, spilled or uneaten and by morning frozen on the snow. Even one white flake of frozen tallow, say no bigger than a pinky finger, flipped off to one side and lying forgotten in the snow as we chop up a block of lard for the cooker in the barn, is worth an entire morning’s vigil. That little flake is pure fat, pure energy, which makes pure warmth at the astonishing rate of 4,000 kilocalories per pound.
There is no guarantee, no agreement between us. The ravens only know that every day we bundled-up two-legs will appear, faithful servants to our sled dogs. No matter what the temperature we will do our morning chores, and every day there will be some reward for patience, maybe not a bonanza like 200 grams of pure lard, but something. Maybe a pail will tip or a few nuggets of kibble will spill from a bag, or a husky will purposely spill her bowl of soup, and after picking out all the appealing morsels retreat back into her straw-filled house. Game on.
This is the good part. The raven lands, side-hops cautiously into the edge of the dog’s circle, pauses, side-steps forward, looks both ways, minces back, then forward, then relaxes ever so slightly. Pecks at a little fleck of fat or rice or kibble, and another. Backs away, checks again, like a pitcher with a known base-stealer poised on first. So far so good. The dog is watching intently, three feet away. But it’s okay. At least today it is. I am not sure how this agreement ever goes awry, but every once in a very long time it must, and then we find a raven feather in the dog yard, or some other sign that there has been some trouble, maybe deadly trouble, for one of the big black birds.
Lately I’ve been thinking of these two ravens as Hugin and Munin, the ravens of Viking lore. In Norse mythology, these two were perched on the shoulders of the god Odin, helping, advising, flying away on recon missions and reporting back. Huginn (pronounced Hoo-gen) was thought or mind, and Muninn (Moo-nen) was memory. (The names seem to be spelled nowadays both with and without the double “n.”)
Bernd Heinrich, the scientist author who has written several fascinating books about ravens during his lifetime of study, describes Hugin and Munin in an interesting context:
In a biological symbiosis one organism typically shores up some weakness or deficiency of the other(s). As in such a symbiosis, Odin was the father of all humans and gods, though in human form he was imperfect by himself. As a separate entity he lacked depth perception (being one-eyed) and he was apparently also uninformed and forgetful. But his weaknesses were compensated by his ravens, Hugin (mind) and Munin (memory) who were part of him. They perched on his shoulders and reconnoitered to the ends of the earth each day to return in the evening and tell him the news. He also had two wolves at his side, and the man/god-raven-wolf association was like one single organism in which the ravens were the eyes, mind, and memory, and the wolves the providers of meat and nourishment. As god, Odin was the ethereal part—he only drank wine and spoke only in poetry. I wondered if the Odin myth was a metaphor that playfully and poetically encapsulates ancient knowledge of our prehistoric past as hunters in association with two allies to produce a powerful hunting alliance. It would reflect a past that we have long forgotten and whose meaning has been obscured and badly frayed as we abandoned our hunting cultures to become herders and agriculturists, to whom ravens act as competitors.
I just love thinking about this mythic team of man/god, ravens, and wolves. Maybe it is just that great aside about how Odin spoke only poetry and drank nothing but wine. Now there’s a gig.
It seems to me, though, that there should be a third raven perched on one of Odin’s shoulders, alongside either Hugin and Munin. Or maybe perched right on top of Odin’s head (sounds as though he might not notice.) There is certainly a third layer, a third raven, in my mental life. Yes, there is thought, as in thinking and pondering and figuring. And of course there is always memory, and memories. Recalling, remembering, revering, regretting, and all those other great “re” words. Remorse, retribution, revenge; reconsideration, retaliation, and reconciliation.
So yes, thought and memory. Present and past.
My third raven would be called Wunderin. From wonder, both as verb, as in “I’m wonderin’ how this whole deal is going to sort itself out,” and as noun, as in “that is just an absolute wonder.”
Should I ever happen across a lost and confused Viking, a wild-haired scraggle-toothed descendant of Leif the Lucky, somewhere far out on the northeast barrens after lo these thousand years, I will suggest this revision to him or her as we share a swig of mead. Hugin, Munin, and Wunderin. Thought, Memory, and Wonder.
Smart birds, those ravens. They know the deal. In they come, every morning at first light. They check and wait and watch, and they most definitely think and remember. I’m betting that they wonder, too. Wonder about it all, and wonder at it all. Who’s to say they don’t?
It’s working out for them, this quiet deep winter, as it has for so many winters, and I have no doubt that they’ll still be around whenever this chapter of the north’s story closes. I wonder who will be here with them.
Maybe just that one-eyed forgetful god and his magical wolves. Odin, sipping wine and spouting poetry.
Now there’s an image to make a person pause for a moment on the snowy path, to listen for the telltale sound of warm breath becoming ice.