It was around three o’clock in the morning, the outside temperature -14o F, when I heard the coyotes yipping; high pitched squeals of excitement it seemed to me, but only for a few seconds, and then they were silent. They were wandering close to our rural Mason County home, as they often did, and perhaps came upon a bit of food, maybe a dead rabbit. Other creatures, especially small birds, were conserving their body heat against the extreme cold, clear skies, which radiated much of the atmosphere’s heat outward to space, unimpeded by cloud cover. Following that brief moment of consciousness, I soon drifted off again, sleeping away the rest of the night under a warm heavy blanket.
Coyotes captured on the trail camera, Mason Co., Illinois
The next day, recalling the night before and how struggle against the cold is the normal life of wild creatures in a northern winter, I thought about a late October campsite in the Missouri Ozarks over twenty years earlier. The temperature was in the low 30s, so I sat as close to the fire as possible, and fed it often with small branches and twigs. The dry wood burned quickly, and its heat was soon lost to the air. Cottonwood twigs burned the fastest, but produced only a weak heat. Yet cottonwood was the most abundant fuel around the campsite, not far from the Current River; the better firewood, such as oak, had long before been gathered by summer campers.
I remember sitting near the fire, thinking about heat, light, and energy. During winter’s cold, it’s all about retaining heat. That, of course, is the main purpose behind a mammal’s fir and a bird’s feathers (flight notwithstanding); the reason why wildlife can survive in the Arctic cold and why polar bears look as they do. Once heat escapes and dissipates into the atmosphere, it is gone forever. There is no way, for example, to gather together the heat lost from a campfire and store it into one concentrated place for later release as warmth.
And what of the energy before being stored as wood that eventually ended up at my campfire? It was once, of course, light, or electromagnetic energy, produced in the sun through nuclear fusion, the sun’s gravitational pull forcing atoms together to fuse into new elements and in the process, converting mass into great quantities of energy that would radiate outward in all directions, with only a fraction intercepted by the earth and its living plants, and an even smaller fraction, orders and orders of magnitude smaller, to be stored temporarily as, perhaps, a cottonwood tree.
I sat at that campfire long ago under layers of clothing, every gap closed with a zipper or scarf, minimizing the loss of body heat, with barred and screech owls occasionally calling, the side of my body nearest the fire being hot from the flames, the other side much cooler and cooling off. When it was time for sleep, I stopped feeding the fire, which soon became a pile of glowing embers. The tent and sleeping bag were as cold as the night air. But in the sleeping bag, after a short while, it actually felt quite warm. I breathed the cold tent air through a small flap in the bag, but otherwise, was sealed shut inside, the bag’s insulation doing a fair job at retaining body heat.
Morning at a Current River Campsite, Missouri
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A few days after hearing the coyotes, the air from northern latitudes in Canada still lingered, and I spent some time watching the bird feeders through the living room window. The birds were busy foraging for black oil sunflower seeds, which I kept stocked in the feeders: pine siskins, purple finches, and fox sparrows from Canada’s boreal forest; American tree sparrows from the tundra that is even further north. I thought about earlier in the week, when I saw a snowy owl fly from its perch atop an electric pole along the highway near our home. A hunter from the northern latitudes, possibly beyond the Arctic Circle, a bird that may have looked face-to-face with a polar bear. These birds from the North came to Illinois to escape even colder temperatures, killer wind chills, ice, snow, and competition for sparse food resources. But here in Illinois such extreme weather would not last long; here, a thaw is always not far off. As long as they could find enough food to maintain energy levels, Illinois weather probably would not be a factor in their survival. As for me, I’ll remain quite comfortable in my century-old farm house, reliably heated by an efficient natural gas furnace and electric heaters. Warm nights…as long as the power stays on.