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Lange: Keeping Warm

02/09/12 5:55PM By Willem Lange
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(Host) A lot of folks who huddle inside by the stove as much as possible during the winter wonder how all those others working outdoors can stand it. Commentator Willem Lange knows their secret.

(Lange) My wife recently came across an old photograph she took, one February day over fifty years ago, of the man she'd just married. He's smiling through icicles hanging from his whiskers. He's wearing rubber shoepacs, Malone wool pants, a rough old wool shirt with a flash of red long johns showing at the collar, and a red wool hunting hat with the earflaps down. He's holding a double-bitted axe in hands mittenned in buckskin choppers. The photograph is labeled, "26º below!"

I don't think I'd be smiling if I were working outdoors today at 26 below. And if I had to, I sure wouldn't be wearing only a moth-eaten old wool shirt from a yard sale.

The axe is the key to the smile. During that long-ago February, we were felling and limbing spruce trees, and hauling the logs out of the woods for cabins, shelters, and bridges. From the time we got out of our cars in the morning till we started to warm them up at 4:30 for the drive home, we never stopped moving vigorously more than once or twice. We worked, ate - and some said, smelled - like horses. An infrared satellite photo of the woods would have shown a vast expanse of blue dotted with five fast-moving red-hot coals.

We humans, like most mammals, are by nature smugglers. We carry everywhere with us a vital treasure: a body temperature that can't vary more than a few degrees without causing us harm. In hot weather we can sweat and go about pretty much in the pelt God gave us, but in the cold we have to add an auxiliary pelt. We started out borrowing those from other mammals, and then for millennia wove and knitted them from plant and animal fibers. Now, much as I hate to say it, wool is passé in the very coldest weather. Instead, we don layers of polypropylene, polar fleece, goose down, and Gore-Tex.

But loggers working in the woods today still wear wool pants and shirts. There's no mystery why: Wool stands up better to thorns and snags and chain saw gas and oil. And the loggers keep moving. They know, even if only intuitively, that the only heat any of us ever enjoys outdoors in the winter comes from within. There's an irony inherent in that revelation: that the better a man does his job, the more likely it is he'll be promoted to boss, and spend the rest of his career standing around the log yard slowly freezing to death. But there's a bright spot, too. He'll probably discover, as I have, that though with age, it becomes harder to move fast enough to keep warm, the winters are getting warmer.

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