Just like its mythological namesake, this January had two faces. It started out warm, on the heels of a virtually snow-free December. Throughout the northeast, lakes and ponds remained unfrozen, temperatures soared into the high 50s on a few days, and we thought that winter would never come. But then, just past the middle of the month, the mercury fell. Those of us who care about forest health cheered — at last, a good cold snap to knock back some of the more virulent insect pests! And we started getting snow: a half-inch one day, two inches a couple days later, and with just one day above freezing, much of it is still on the ground.
The cold air is great for walking in — the dryness is easier on the lungs. “It’s just like hiking in Arizona!” my mother exults.
In the woods, the rhododendron leaves curl up, turning one, uniform face toward the frigid air.
When the temperature drops below 35F, rhododendron leaves begin to cup and curl at the edges. At 25F, the leaves have curled so tight that half the leaf surface has disappeared and the leaves droop. When temperatures hit the teens, leaves shrivel even tighter, turn brownish-green and dangle like stiff string beans. This response to temperature changes is a rhododendron’s method of preventing loss of moisture through the leaves.
The upper side of a rhododendron leaf is leathery. The bottom side is dappled with tiny air valves that control the flow of air in and out of a leaf. Cold air contains less moisture than warm air. So when low temperatures and high winds arrive, the leaf valves close. By looking out a window on a winter day, one can determine roughly how cold it is by the degree the rhododendron leaves have curled and drooped. When temperatures rise, the leaves open again.
The species in question here is Rhododendron maximum, which grows throughout the eastern U.S. in the colder, damper parts of the forest, often along streams under hemlock cover, or on north-facing slopes. This is because its leaves are sensitive to sun-scald, unlike its cousin mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), which, though also evergreen, does not curl its leaves in the cold.
The Cherokee used to use rhododendron leaves in weather magic. They would “throw clumps of leaves into a fire and dance around it to bring cold weather,” according to this compendium. They also made rhododendron-leaf decoctions for external and internal use against headaches, heart trouble, and other aches and pains, and carved the wood into pipes and spoons. I imagine some still do.
The day before yesterday, I found coyote tracks in the woods above my house, about a hundred feet from my front porch. There was a skim of snow in the tracks, so I knew when the tracks had been made: around midnight, just before the snow stopped. I was inside reading blogs at the time.
That evening, when I was having supper with my parents, the subject of Second Life came up. I mentioned reading that Sweden was establishing the first official embassy in the cyber world. Dad had been reading about Second Life in the business press, and we began talking about virtual real estate, and how you can get people to buy anything if you can just figure out a way to stake a claim.
Mom was baffled. “What? WHAT? That doesn’t make sense!” It really bothered her that people would devote so much time and energy to creating a simulated world when the real world is so little known and appreciated. We agreed that it might be more interesting if the game’s creators had attempted to set up some kind of rudimentary ecosystem, with real ecological costs to any major disruption or development – a kind of Biosphere 3. Right now, apparently, the “place” has few non-human inhabitants, and ecosystem creation is left up to the owner-gods of autonomous parcels of Second Life real estate, such as Svarga, or the new Terminous.
But apparently ecosystem creation was part of the original plan. The CEO of the parent company, Linden Lab, said in a recent interview that
We were very interested in simulating things like physics and weather as a starting point, with the goal of creating enormous complexity that would be very beautiful. We used to imagine that SL, or parts of it, could become vast forests, full of little evolving plants made of code, and you could wander in that forest and find things that no one else had ever seen. What a thought! Builds like Svarga are going exactly in that direction now. I can’t wait to be able to walk in those forests.
I’m of two minds about Second Life. It does seem to have some real-world utility as a space for people to share their artworks, perform original music, or grill their congressional representatives. I’ve always been interested in communal creation (and community creation). But at this point, Second Life sounds more like a shopping mall than a true town square. Its owners could pull the plug at any time, and they are under no obligation to tolerate dissent. And let’s remember: building those artificial forests does have real-world ecological costs in terms of the energy needed to build and power computers and computer networks. The wood-based economy of the high Middle Ages destroyed Europe’s forests in order to build (among other things) cathedrals, those timeless evocations of forest space in glass and stone.
Of course, what’s really caught the media’s attention is the amount of commercial activity that goes on now in Second Life. Real U.S. dollars (converted into an artificial currency) are being spent there… which means that SL’s ecological footprint is growing. Corporations are eagerly buying up advertizing space, and some long-time participants are beginning to complain that there’s less and less to distinguish it from the real world they’re trying to escape.
But let’s not be too hard on the Second Life enthusiasts. It seems to me that people who long to fully inhabit a virtual world are little different from those who regard heaven, or some spiritual plane, as their true home, and their earthly bodies as temporary houses for an immortal soul. (It’s not for nothing that we call our online visual counterparts “avatars”!) I’ve read exactly one cyberpunk novel — William Gibson’s Neuromancer — and was repelled by its vision of an all-encompassing cyberspace. But who among us doesn’t live in a fantasy world to some extent? Why else do we enjoy novels?
The anthropological and paleontological evidence strongly suggests that humans are, at root, gatherer-hunters who evolved in seasonally nomadic, small-band societies. As a result, our sense of home ground is fluid and highly adaptable. Like migratory birds, we have a strong homing instinct precisely because we are prone to wandering. And we are not just wayfarers but way-makers, always trying to convert routes into destinations and the Way into something that can be spoken about. Part of us longs to travel; the other part longs to nest. While some mark territory, others are content just to explore.
Either way, home is a circle of stones with a fire in the middle. If you sit facing the fire too long, your back gets cold and you turn as two-sided as Janus.
So get up and dance!