The Subnivean Zone

In which you marvel at deep morning and deep snow…

It is light outside of your two-story window and you wonder how much time you have to rest before the alarm goes off at 6, and then 6:15.  Your window faces east and you expect a sublime sunrise any moment as you observe the silhouette of a 50 year old Ponderosa pine’s pluming branches and needles which have been there longer than the house.  It is like you are in a tree house, but what you are caught thinking of really, after the alarm, which will go off any minute you’re sure, is about your new favorite concept: the subnivean zone.

You are thinking of the subnivean zone not only for its musical phonemes but because you might speak of it today.  You will leave the house around 8 to drive to Mt. Bachelor where there has already been 240 inches of snowfall this year, with about 100 inches at the mid-mountain level, a level at which you will walk with young people and cool volunteer Forest Service rangers like yourself.  This means that when you are walking with your new snowshoe hare feet and you glance at a tree with its treebombs resting in branches, you are probably more than halfway up the tree’s total height.  And below all of that white are layers upon layers called the subnivean zone.  You like to say this out loud.

Subnivean zone.

And then in your thinking (still waiting for the alarm) you imagine a scene you imagined last time you were out: a daydream of going out there on a full moon night on a search for the pine martin in action, imagining perhaps that this critter’s stealth is best executed at night, when, in fact, daylight and dusk are for their activity.  Oh wouldn’t that be an adventure?  You would imagine you are a science-hobbyist and you have dedicated a few hours of your midnight to seeing that foxy creature hunting.  The martin will be sleek and intelligent upon the icy-white all around and listen for subtle sounds below the top layer.  It looks with its ears, below, at the subnivean, your new favorite word.  And below there are voles who have adapted such that they live under the snow during the winter!  The amazement is that it is warmer below the surface of the snow and they can dwell comfortably enough, except for the lack of oxygen.

The martin waits and listens for the vole who has begun its tunneling up.  It does this to provide a hole so oxygen can travel down to fill the cavity which is he vole’s hibernation nation. It climbs up through the layers and if heard will be snatched up as a snack by the hungry martin.

You consider an E.O. Wilson quote you found in a book not by E. O. Wilson: “Love the organisms for themselves first, then strain for the general explanations, and with good fortune, discoveries will follow.  If they don’t, the love and the pleasure will have been enough.” (Leon Powers, A Hawk in the Sun)

And though you likely won’t go on a midnight-moonlight snowshoe in search of martins,  it does seem like a good idea.  Especially when you discover it is 3 a.m. and you are far from sleep.  You decide to put on the coffee, write down some of the inspired thoughts you have, and then get to studying.  The subnivean obsession is done for now so you can move on to avalanche and watershed and lichen, until 8 a.m. rolls around and you’re off with your packed lunch and layers of wool.


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