Tiny Homestead Discoveries Inspire Big Wild Ideas


It was the first day of March, the first day the sun had shone warmly this year here in northern Ohio. The temperature was inching up to 40 degrees F. and it almost seemed summery. I wasn’t the only creature that thought so either. To my amusement, a slate colored junco hopped into a little pool of snow melt and splashed and fluttered around joyously. Looked like joy anyway. I had to laugh right out loud. It was hardly warm enough to go out without a coat on, yet here was this tiny bird obviously enjoying an outdoor bath. Why couldn’t I go for a dip too? Life just ain’t fair.

I decided to go for a walk to see if there were other signs promising an end to the cold. The first thing I noticed was that where my feet sank into the four inches of snow cover, the print of my boot filled with water.  The snow was melting and the moisture was sinking to the ground, which was no longer frozen. I wasn’t too surprised at that. Every year about this time I see this happen. The constant soil temperature down about a foot or two is about 55 degree F. When the soil surface is insulated from cold air by snow that is about 32 degrees, it is not usual for the lower warmth of the soil to drive the frost up out of the ground, especially when the covering snow is melting in the sun. That’s why in snowy winters, the soil often thaws sooner in spring than in cold, bare-ground winters. Okay. We all know that. Hold that thought.

What I discovered next I could not believe. On the south side of the house where the snow was melting fastest, the winter aconites and the snowdrops were blooming wherever the snow was gone. Impossible, I thought. I had just checked the day before and there was nothing there except snow and my cold feet. Those flowers just could not jump up and bloom that quickly.

I tried not to get too excited. I needed to be the cold, logical scientist. Flowers just can’t spring out of the ground and bloom an hour or so after the snow melts. Just doesn’t work that way.  I needed to hone my powers of observation on the situation more intensely— something I am not very good at doing. As I honed in on the edge of the retreating snow, I saw more snowdrops emerging into view. They had come up and begun to blossom UNDER THE SNOW.

Maybe this is just ho-hum for botanists who know how cold hardy snowdrops and winter aconites are, but I have never read any reference to it “in the literature.” It led me into totally wild notions. We’ve got all these monsantaclauses boasting about how they can save the world by genetically engineering fast-growing corn to produce fast-fattening food.  Why don’t they put their minds to a really worthwhile goal. How about developing corn that will come up under the snow?

I can think of something even better than that. Why not genetically engineer a new biological thermostat for humans? If juncos can bathe in snow melt, why shouldn’t all of us be so blessed? Think how awesome it would be if science could jigger a gene or two that would allow us to enjoy winter without artificial heat.  We are burning up our planet because we insist on living in climates that we aren’t supposed to be living in. We are tropical animals.  If we were serious about saving the earth, we would have to admit that we haven’t evolved to live this far north.  What if by some teensy weensy little genetic manipulation, we could endure the cold like polar bears do. I’m ready.
Image: Dark-Eyed Junco on Wikipedia
Cross-Posted at OrganicToBe.org



KJMClark, I really appreciate knowing about brown fat etc.but this science only heightens my mystification. The junco does not seem to have much fat of any kind to it, especially in the legs, yet those frail little stems endured ten below zero, no problem. Gene

Science to the rescue: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-01/uoc–adm011204.php, and http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-06/tes-aew061009.php. Or, there are many people in the population with a cold-adapted kind of mitochondria, and brown fat still exists in adults, but has to be triggered to work.

The first one points out that many people from northern areas have a “defective” form of mitochondria that produce a lot of waste heat. That makes it easier for them to deal with cold. The second points out that adults still have small pockets of brown fat – a special kind of fat with lots of mitochondria, that burns calories like mad and produces heat. One way to trigger that brown fat (and maybe make your brown fat patches bigger), is to
– wait for it –
… hang out in cold rooms! Anna’s a genius.

Here’s another brown fat article: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-12/uob-bfc120109.php. As they say in the conclusion, “according to estimates, 50 grams of active brown fatty tissue is sufficient for increasing the basal metabolic rate by 20 per cent. With the same nutrition and activity the fat reserves would melt at a rate of five kilos per year.”

    I’ve always wanted to be a genius. 🙂 I’m glad to see some science to back me up — maybe now I’ll have the backup I need to tempt my husband to wean himself off the heat.

When even Science is worried about food, we should all sit up and pay attention:


I think it is also true the body will acclimate pretty quickly to different temperatures. A friend who moved to CA from OH sold all her winter coats and enjoyed the balmy “Southern Weather” … for about one season. She was freezing the next year. I moved to NM from OH thinking I was moving “to the dessert”. Imagine my surprise to be thigh-high in snow the first winter in the mountains … duh! So … heating with a wood stove in the winter will absolutely ruin any possibility of being warm anywhere else in anybody else’s house. Yes, I’m acclimated. I strip down to undershirt and jammie-bottoms and throw another log in the fire! (PS — I also had snowdrops blooming under the leaf mulch that was covered with snow when I discovered them! The crocus, however, was covered with 2 feet of shoveled snow and were just barely peaking through the ground) But I heard my first bluebird so I’m happy!

Jeepers Gene! Are you trying to ruin the clothing industry!?!?!?!Although it might be interesting to see The National Geographic do an article on Eskimoo Nudist Colonies!

We don’t have anything coming up yet in central WI, but I’ve seen geese flying and the snowbirds (Juncos) are getting more active, preparing themselves for their big flight north next month. Gene, you’re right about air conditioning – it is vastly overdone in the summer which does a big public health disservice to people who frequently have to go into and out of it.

On a (sort of)related note, one thing that bugs the daylights out of me is have you ever noticed that when in a hospital or clinic, every waiting room have a big TV in corner turned on, often to CNN or FOX. It drives me crazy trying to find a quiet corner.

You guys are awesome.I start losing comfort in winter whenever I move farther than ten feet from the woodstove. There is no hope for me. I yearn for summer and temps in the 80s but as soon as that happens, every building or car I get into has the air conditioning blasting away and I freeze again. Gene

“It seems like a few behavior modifications would have some of the same effect. I’ve noticed that I can slowly train my body so that I’m perfectly comfortable with an inside temperature of 40 F by the middle of the winter.”

Living in a tipi this winter, and using minimal wood heat (small fire on the floor in the middle, basically no change from outside temperature, except radiant heat absorbed by whatever bare skin is facing the fire), I was surprised at the extent to which our bodies can get used to extremes in temperature. By the first of February, when temperatures were just occasionally beginning to hit freezing here (Kansas was exceptionally cold this winter), I found myself reasonably comfortable outside in a flannel shirt and jeans.
The moral of the story is, I feel, is that genetics are not totally to blame, but rather that our idea of minimum required comfort level hovers just short of insane. The truth is, humans are capable of living quite well (depending on your perspective) in almost all climates WITHOUT burning up the whole world just to stay comfortable. Its more a question of values than of tolerance.


About 20 years ago I was testifying before the WI State Senate AG committee about the negative effects of BGH hormone from Monsanto. I really broke them up by saying, “If Monsanto wants to do farmers a favor they would use genetic engineering to produce an everblooming lilac-and leave milk alone”. I was serious, of course, and still am.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House March 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm

I’m with Beth on the DNA thing! All kidding aside tho, we have had the warmest, driest winter here in eastern Washington that we have had since we moved here 20 years ago-but the last two years we had the third and second heaviest snowfall on record….I have enjoyed the warm winter after those two years! Watching the tv weather, you people “back east” (which if you have been born, raised, and lived in the west all your life, anything east of Nebraska is “back east”, LOL) have seemed to get all of our winter this year! I could get used to this!

With all due respect to the humor, Gene, ain’t no way anybody from the “isn’t-GMO-wonderful-stuff?” side of the fence is ever going to mess with my DNA! We had about 3 inches of the white stuff last night, so now you’ve inspired me to run out and see if Indian Paintbruch also comes up under the snow.

It seems like a few behavior modifications would have some of the same effect. I’ve noticed that I can slowly train my body so that I’m perfectly comfortable with an inside temperature of 40 F by the middle of the winter. Just think how much we’d all save on heating costs if we were willing to wear coats and sweaters inside! Or just do as the Japanese traditionally did and have one small heater under the table to warm you up as you ate rather than heating the whole room.

(Our crocuses popped up Sunday. And I saw the first butterflies! Yesterday, we had chorus frogs. I think I’m about a zone south of you, so it’s all coming….)

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