The holidays have brought on a spot of brain fog. I’ve taken a vacation from everything requiring mental effort and concentration, in spite of all my best intentions I haven’t even been catching up on the reading I wanted and needed to do.
Today, the real reason for this brain fog hit me: I’m back in Winnipeg, and have become a sleepwalker again. In Winnipeg in December, the sun does not come up in the morning until past 8 o’clock, then it makes a low arc in the sky before dipping back under the horizon sometime around 4:30. The temperature has not climbed above -20 Celsius, except for one day, but that was Christmas Day and it went by too quickly and the mercury dipped back down again that night. I went for a walk on Christmas Eve day, and by the time I realised I’d gone too far, my legs had started to freeze and the walk back was more urgent. When I finally made it back inside and started thawing out, my legs turned red and were violently itchy for at least an hour; I think the small veins and capillaries at the surface of my skin were re-dilating after some cold-induced vasoconstriction and were releasing histamine in a panic.
Anyways, back to the sleepwalking. I saw Guy Maddin’s weirdy-weird but wonderful movie My Winnipeg last summer at the Polo Park movieplex, and I have to thank him for explaining some dark and funny mysteries about this place where I was born and raised. Winnipeg is a city of sleepwalkers, according to Maddin. I’ve thought about this in the months since I saw the movie, since I didn’t know whether or not I agreed. In more recent years, Winnipeg has become a city of drivers; not many people walk anymore, except in the malls. But when you start walking outdoors in Winnipeg, you easily fall into a trance-like state, where time stands still and you simply walk endlessly on flat ground covered by crunchy-squeaky snow. You want to believe that the walking helps you to think, but really you’re past thinking, you’re simply surviving and repeating thoughts to yourself, ones you’ve already had, and you’re certainly not coming up with anything revolutionary. Time doesn’t stand still, you just don’t notice how it’s passing. One thing is certain: trancewalking is an excellent way of ignoring or avoiding conflict.
I loved Maddin’s exaggerations and embellishments, and I’m sure that everything he put in that movie happened – just not exactly the way he says it did. My theory about the frozen horses in the river is that one horse may have escaped from a stable and plunged into the icy river, but in Maddin’s childhood memory, one horse morphed into an entire stable, and they froze instantly. In any case, Winnipeg constantly produces outrageous news stories – just read the papers! said Maddin himself, in today’s paper in fact.
So the cold and dark would explain the brain fog, or laziness, as I prefer to call it when it happens to me. A funny thing about the sleepiness that afflicts me when I’m here is that I didn’t notice it when I was growing up, and in fact I’m convinced it doesn’t affect children. It hits you at puberty, and by the time you really notice how heavy and sleepy you’ve become, you’ve already made plans to leave – if only temporarily – to make it go away. I moved away when I was 18, I now know it was because I was especially in danger of becoming a dedicated sleepwalker. I spent years away from Winnipeg trying to shake myself awake, but since I keep coming back, I remain susceptible.
Of course, I have to tie this in with animals at some point, might as well go for it now. Hibernation in turtles, amphibians and fish, is my first thought. A few years ago, someone brought a toad to the clinic where I now work, an ordinary greenish brown toad in a box; he was on his way to being released. The person wanted a professional opinion on how the toad could possibly have lain immobile for an entire winter trapped in a cement wall, and then resurrected when the wall was broken down and he was inadvertently rescued. Not knowing much about toads, I tried to remember what I had learned about amphibians and what they might do during the winter. Toads can dig, so they can reach deep ground that does not freeze. The part of the concrete wall in which he was encased likely didn’t freeze, according to the rescuer, and it was actually quite damp, so that might have helped it survive.Frogs, on the other hand, can’t dig, so they have a more complex challenge to avoid freezing or dehydrating during the winter. Adaptive evolution is a delightfully complex process, and I applaud the frogs and other cold-blooded survivors of the Ice Age for their sleepy resourcefulness.
Other animals don’t hibernate, and while Winnipeg isn’t a place where you will find an abundant variety of wildlife, you will reliably find great numbers of a few single species. Deer, for instance, have flourished. Particularly around here in the suburbs reclaimed from farmers’ fields, where people have taken pity on them and set out hay or other types of feed to get them through the long winter months. Really, you wouldn’t know how they ever survived without us, as they hang around the feeding stations nearly all day long, and don’t run away unless you try to approach close enough for a chat. Some people have taken feeding wildlife to ridiculous lengths; my parents gleefully reported that one of their neighbours, on at least one occasion, cooked up a chicken that she took outside and delivered to a fox and her new litter of kits.
Then there are the insects. They spend the winter in diapause, waiting for the world to become more hospitable before they come to life again. In places like Winnipeg, it seems that only a relative few species have perfected the diapause to such a degree that they can proliferate when the days start to grow long. Mosquitoes, dragonflies, bumblebees and giant water bugs were the insects that plagued me as a kid; when summer came, they were suddenly, alarmingly, everywhere. I must have been four or five years old the day I went to visit my best friend across the street, and when it was time for me to go home, I could not cross back because in the space of a few hours the street had been invaded by an army of giant water bugs. A real nightmare, these bugs could crawl, swim AND fly, and their large pincers weren’t just for decoration. In my mind, I can still see the driveway and street littered with hundreds of them, even as my friend’s mum told me not to be such a scaredy-cat, there were only a few bugs and I was much faster than they were. Even though I begged her to drive me home, she eventually convinced me I could outrun the bugs, so I took a deep breath and ran as fast as I could; somehow I made it across those 50 metres from door to door in one piece. A scene like that would have featured in my version of My Winnipeg, with no (conscious) exaggeration.
So here we all are, several species of animal, stuck in the depths of an Ice Age winter, each doing our best to make it through until the better days arrive, as they always do. Some of us do it best by giving in to the sleep, while others find it easier to stay awake. For the ones who won’t give in to sleep, their job is to take care of the ones who can’t get by alone, and to stand against the dark and cold.