1:30 a.m. found me with M, two of her friends and one other mother standing in Welch's Field watching the Quandrantid meteor shower. The temperature was -9 and our tilted heads exposed our eyelashes, lips and nasal passages to the north sky and immediate icing.
The meteors did not disappoint us as they darted across the sky between the hills but I was relieved when M said, "OK, one more and we can leave."
As I shivered against the car seeking balance against the enormity of the night sky, I thought about shivering and what an amazing involuntary warming action it is and I also thought that perhaps the calories being burned to warm me up might make up for the four raspberry newtons that I ate earlier.
That got me to thinking about chickadees and how they make it through the frigid nights. According to Bernd Heinrich's, Winter World, fat reserves in a chickadee are 7 percent in the evening and only 3 percent in the morning. In other words, the birds spend all day gaining enough fat to make it through a shivering night. They find a sheltered place in dense evergreens or vines and puff out in order to insulate and maintain as much body heat as possible. The main heat loss in chickadees is from their bill and their eyes. To minimize that loss, they tuck their heads under their shoulder feathers when they sleep. Louis has a beautiful picture of a puffed out chickadee on his web site which I am adding in here.
Well, never one to stop a thought train while it's barreling along, I then thought about how we keep warm when we outdoor-loving Mainers go outside in the cold. The secret is layering and, like the chickadee, we try to preserve our own body heat. That reminded me of the publisher's note in the January 2008 issue of AMC Outdoors. The Note is entitled "Heavier When Wet" and talks about the way layering has changed over the years.
When I was first starting to experiment with outdoor fun in the late 1960's, I would pile on layer after layer of cotton shirts and sweatshirts and a few pairs of jeans and then put a huge jacket over the whole thing. On my feet I would have as many pairs of socks as could fit into my boots. I was NEVER warm. My arms would not even hang naturally by my sides with all those layers--they angled out from my body and my feet would turn to blocks of ice within minutes. But, I loved the outdoors so much that I would suffer just to stay out and sled or snowshoe or breathe the cold, sharp air.
Eventually, I discovered what the chickadee knows by instinct, that the point is to trap the body heat and use it for insulation. Layering should be thoughtful and serve a purpose. Circulation is essential, too. If toes can't wiggle, then feet can't stay warm. But most important, moisture is the mortal enemy of warmth and cotton kills. In fact, back to the chickadee, the wings of birds are waterproof and in the rain the birds seek shelter, make themselves small and cover up with their wings.
Well, before my thoughts could go much further, one more double meteor shot across the sky and we all jumped in the car and headed home.