How do the winter moths survive when other moths die? What enables them to avoid freezing as they rest, and what makes it possible for them to fly -- and so to seek food and mates -- in the cold?
Bernd Heinrich, Scientific American
1. The Himalayas
The room lies there, immaculate, bone light
on white walls, shell-pink carpet, and pale, too,
are the wrists and hands of professors gathered
in the outer hall where behind darkness
and a mirror they can observe unseen.
They were told: high in the Himalayas
Buddhist monks thrive in sub-zero cold
far too harsh for human life. Suspended
in the deep grace of meditation, they raise
their body heat and do not freeze to death.
So five Tibetan monks have been flown
to Cambridge and the basement of Reed Hall.
They sit now with crossed legs and slight smiles,
and white sheets lap over their shoulders
like enfolded wings. The sheets are wet,
and drops of water trickle down the monks'
bare backs. The professors wait patiently
but with the widened eyes of fathers
watching new babies in hospital cribs.
Their aluminum clipboards rest gently
in their laps, their pens are poised,
and in a well-lit room in Cambridge
five Tibetan monks sit under heavy wet sheets
and steam begins to rise from their shoulders.
2. Burn Ward
My friend speaks haltingly, the syllables freezing
against the night air because the nurse's story
still possesses him, the ease with which she tended
patients so lost in pain, so mangled, scarred, and
abandoned in some arctic zone of uncharted suffering
that strangers stumbling onto the ward might
cry out, rushing back to a world where the very air
did not grieve flesh. Empathy was impossible,
he said. A kind of fog or frozen lake lay between her
and the patient, far away. Empathy was an insult,
to look into the eyes of the consumed and pretend,
I know. It must have been this lake, this vast
glacial plain that she would never cross, where
the patient waved in the blue-gray distance,
alone and trembling the way winter moths tremble
to warm themselves, while she stood, also alone
and freezing, on the other side, it must have been
this unbearable cold that made her drive straight home
one day, sit down cross-legged in the center of
and empty garage, pour the gasoline on like a balm,
and calmly strike a match like someone starting
a winter fire, or lost and searching in the frozen dark.