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Lange: Cryptobiosis

Some years ago I wrote an article for Yankee Magazine about termites and carpenter ants, and came across a word I’d never seen before – cryptobiotic.

Our word, “crypt,” comes from the same Greek root. It’s a term used to describe creatures that need, for one reason or another, to live hidden from sight. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “the reversible cessation of metabolism under extreme environmental conditions (as low temperature).” Wikipedia describes it as “an ametabolic state of life entered by an organism in response to adverse environmental conditions....all metabolic procedures stop...until...conditions return to being hospitable. When this occurs, the organism will return to its metabolic state of life as it was before the cryptobiosis.”

Here in Vermont we’ve just passed the winter solstice, and our daylight is finally beginning to return. Those of us who’ve been here a while and have listened to our elders know the old adage, “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” And, amazing to behold, some frozen-nosed Vermonters, are exhibiting an apparent evolutionary adaptation: they appear to be entering a state of cryptobiosis. High boots, insulated ski pants, long coat with a high collar, huge mittens. Nothing showing but a pair of eyes in goggles between a fleece scarf and a tuque pulled down to the eyebrows. They move as if of their own volition, and you have the feeling there’s somebody in there; but whoever it is may not reappear till at least April.

None of this applies, of course, to the tens of thousands of folks from away who swarm our winter mountainsides in their brightly colored active wear. Or to pond hockey players, broomballers, ice climbers, cross-country skiers, polar bear swimmers, and mountain climbers. If only they’d practice their sports down on Main Street, they might be examples to us all.

There’s no question the climate can get you down after a while - like the farmer down south in Guilford . A state survey crew informed him one fall day that his farm was actually in Massachusetts. “Oh, thank God!” he said. “I don’t think I could’ve stood another Vermont winter.”

During especially hard winters when rations were short, it’s said that old-time Vermonters once practiced a form of cryptobiosis. They brought in from the yard troughs made of hollowed-out logs, filled them with water, and warmed them by the stove. The old folks who couldn’t work anymore got in and lay down in the warm water. The younger folks carried them outside and left them in a shady spot. As soon as they were frozen solid, they stored them under the hay in the mow. Then in late winter they dug them out and thawed them in the warm sun. The old folks got up, changed into dry clothes, and rarely seemed the worse for wear. This has been reported by no less an authority than the late Allan Foley, professor emeritus of history at Dartmouth College, and later a representative in the Vermont legislature. I’m tempted to give it a try.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a retired remodeling contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in East Montpelier, Vermont.
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