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Archive for Sunday, October 28, 2001

As winter approaches, so does an urge to hunker down

October 28, 2001

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A line from a sad sonnet by William Wordsworth has been running through my head: "The world is too much with us."

The terrorists and the anthrax are bad enough, but now the leaves are drizzling down, too. Can winter be far behind?

With all of this, I find myself dreaming animal dreams.

Some of them spring from the violence into which the world has sunk. I dream of bird species that mob their predators, of ground squirrels taking out a rattlesnake.

But I'm no warrior, and this is not my life. My pattern runs closer to that of other animals. I expect I'll work as hard this winter as any self-respecting vole, lemming or weasel. If it snows, let it, these fellows say. They still prowl the subnivean zone the space below the snow and above the earth looking for food.

Like them, I'll work all winter. Yet something in me wishes I were one of those creatures that withdraws when winter comes or death knocks.

If I were an elk right now, I'd head to a warmer spot somewhere down the mountain.

If I were a Monarch butterfly, I'd flee the neighborhood altogether, split for Mexico.

If I were a woodchuck or a bear I'd get seriously fat, find a chilly place to crash and shut down. My lungs and brain would slow, my temperature fall.

And I would wait.

If I were a honeybee, I'd dream of wintry days ahead when I and thousands of my fellows would jam around a core of honey in a ball of buzzing heat.

If I were a gray squirrel, I'd frisk around knowing that I'd soon be sleeping in a pile with my pals.

But of all the hibernators, germs have it best. When the ones that cause botulism, tetanus and anthrax hang it up because conditions are hostile, they turn into endospores. Heat doesn't matter to an endospore; it can last for hours in a 350-degree oven. Dryness can't wither it. Many forms of radiation won't touch it. An endospore survives for decades, certainly; thousands of years, perhaps.

I wouldn't know any of this if Thor Holmes, Chip Taylor, Ken Armitage and Jack Brown, biologists and educators at Kansas University, had not told me first.

I joked with them about feeling as if I want to hibernate these days. But really, I don't. I'm not ready to swap places with a woodchuck. Not yet.

There's too much weasel and vole and lemming in me too much that wants to keep on keeping on.

Yet I do find in myself that bleary sense of things that possessed Wordsworth 200 years ago when he wrote in his sonnet:

"This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not."

Some days, the world's never looked so beautiful to me. Others, though, I just want to say, "Wake me when it's over."

And that's when I find myself envying the retreat of honeybees and gray squirrels, anthrax and elk and dreaming animal dreams.




Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ukans.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ukans.edu.

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