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  • Ian Thompson

A Little Above Texas; a Little Below Zero

Almost every year as I was growing up, my family watched Holiday Inn. This 1942 film features Bing Crosby as a nightclub performer who tries to escape the rush of the city for a Connecticut farm, only to find out how challenging rural life can be. A period radio jingle describes Cosby's Holiday Inn as, "Somewhere in Connecticut, a little above Hartford, a little below zero".

Today, my mind is drawn to that film classic. First, because it's President's Day, one of the holidays celebrated at Cosby's Holiday Inn. Second, although we're located about 30 miles above the Texas state line, last night and tonight, our temperature is below zero. Where we live, really cold weather is something of the past. Taking a walk through our pastures this morning, with ice clinging to our eyebrows, was a walk back in time.

We live in a place that today averages less than an inch of snowfall per year. The coldest that it got here any point last year was 24 degrees. Yet, southeastern Oklahoma was snow country not all that long ago. I've spoken with elders, children of the 1930s, who remember 3-ft deep snows blanketing the ground here when they were young. In the late 1800s, this region experienced winters that were cold enough long enough for ice to form on streams that was thick enough to be cut into blocks. These ice blocks were packed in sawdust, and used for cold storage into the warm months. In this same part of the world, accounts from still a little farther into the past describe snows drifting up to the eaves of the roofs of the log cabins that sheltered Trail of Tears survivors and their families.

Nothing on this morning's walk through our winter wonderland pastures made a more vibrant connection with the past than our bison herd. The windchill was 20 degrees below zero. When they weren't playing chase with each other out of what seemed to be sheer joy, these animals were laying flat on the snow, on a wind-exposed hill, chewing their cud as comfortably as they would on a balmy spring day.

Bison were born of cold. Their species developed in the teeth of the last Ice Age, which reached its peak 18,000 years ago, and they became what they are today in the north country and on the Great Plains, during the ensuing millennia. Today's bison carry adaptations to the conditions of very old times and very cold places.

When I first walked outside today, our herd bull charged right up to the fence, rolled in the snow, ran full-speed to a hay bale, threw it around for emphasis, and returned to me at a gallop. What made this display so impressive was the speed and agility of the animal coupled with his sheer massiveness. That large size is a cold weather adaptation. A large animal produces a lot of heat just through its metabolism. During the last Ice Age, large-sized mammals dominated this continent, from 13-ft tall ground sloths, to armadillos as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. Around 11,000 years ago when the Ice Age ended, most of the giant animals went extinct. Bison are one of the few, and the largest, of the giant animals that survived.

Although bison produce a lot of heat, our animals' coats have been continuously covered in snow for the past two days. This is an impressive demonstration of insulation. It brings to mind a story from the Lewis and Clark Expedition's frigid, 1804 winter quarters at a Mandan Tribal village in present-day North Dakota. One day, a 13-year old boy slipped away from his home and ended up having to spend all night by himself out on the open prairie, with only a buffalo robe for shelter. According to the Expedition's instruments, the temperature plunged to minus 40 degrees that night. In the morning, the boy was found alive, with some frostbitten toes as his only injury. Such effective insulation not only protects bison from freezing, it also allows them to conserve energy during the winter, when calories are harder to come by.

A bison's enormous head isn't just for personal protection. It also makes a fantastic snowplow, allowing them to scrape their way down to edible grass under the snow. In this picture, it looks like our bull may be making buffalo snow angels, but he is actually demonstrating this plowing technique for us. Unlike some cattle, bison are also perfectly willing to use their massive hooves break the ice covering their drinking water. With these physical features and behaviors, a bison is peachy keen down to around 60 degrees below zero. Pretty incredible.

The image below is of a spoon that I carved last night from the horn of a bison that had died at the annual sale a few years ago. I fashioned the top of this utensil into a likeness of a bison, to honor this amazing creature and also to remind my future self of this remarkable span of weather.

In the past week, we've had some slow trips to work on ice-crusted roads. Our water lines are currently frozen, and we've had some cold times feeding hay. So what. We know all too well that cold weather like we currently have is rare and becoming even rarer through continued climate change. We will long treasure having been able to enjoy a time and space that was - a little above Texas and a little below zero.

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Feb 17, 2021

Beautiful story and carved spoon!


Feb 16, 2021

Some of my happiest memories as a youngster are from times being completely snowed in at our farm. A big gas (propane) kitchen stove, a substantial stack of wood for the fireplaces , candles, and lanterns were something always at hand in those days. Frequently there would be a struggling lamb or two in the kitchen being warmed up and fed in preparation for getting it back its mom. I so enjoyed this beautiful essay and all the information you so eloquently provide in it. Thank you.

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