It’s Fall now, Colorado had its first blizzard and I got to wear a cardigan for a minute this morning. We just got over a relatively mild summer here, but I was all set with wintry literature just in case the gates of hell opened up in the Ohio Valley again. One year I read Cormac Mccarthy‘s The Road; that summer I hid under my covers in 114 degree heat wishing the characters would finally fucking freeze to death, just so they could have some peace. You could say I’ve mellowed with age. Or not. In any case– everybody party! It’s always time for a somber winter tale!
This year I bought another sad one, this one set in lovely 1920’s Alaska, rather than a frigid post apocalyptic wasteland. Not to say The Road was without its redemptive points, but it wasn’t exactly a pep talk; comparatively, The Snow Child is almost upbeat. Through two ill-equipped homesteaders, the author retells the story of Snegurochka, an ice maiden who comes into the lives of a childless couple. She’s a force of nature, tied to the snow, in it and of it. Through turns, she’s discovered by both the characters and the readers as part myth, part feral child. It’s reviewed here, better than I possibly could, but let it suffice to say that if nothing else, it’s evocative.
Evocative of what you ask?
Of snow fleas, of course.
Snow fleas, otherwise known as the most frolicsome creature on earth, are little bugs that live in snow and can be seen prancing about on the snow’s surface on sunny days. These guys know how to live. They have harnessed the power of ice so thoroughly that they can survive being frozen without being harmed. Something in their blood prevents ice crystals from forming, making this something very interesting for people interested in saving lives by preserving organs, and also for ice cream makers.
For those of you more interested in cryopreservation than soft serve, I’ll relate that Walt Disney probably did not have his head cryogenically frozen, but that he might have considered it. Cold does have its life-sustaining properties though. A near-fatal suicide attempt resulted in a man discovered in a tub full of cold water. He was pronounced dead at the scene by the fire department, which resulted in a delay of four hours before he was taken to the hospital. Miraculously, he was revived and largely recovered.
Further potential for lifespan expansion lies in the possibility of human hibernation, a state of depressed metabolic activity and lowered basal temperatures sustained for an extended period. In many ways, hibernation resembles sleep: there is a suppression of appetite, slower heart rate, the whole eyes being closed and unconscious thing. In this, there is a parallel between animal hibernation and a particularly extreme human sleep habit. Russian peasants in one rural town in the Pskov region would collectively call it a day and sleep through most of the winter. They called this sleep “lotska” and would shake off their sleep in the spring and go see if the grass was growing.
There are more recent cases of apparent human hibernation. Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, a Japanese hiker, fell and was discovered 24 days later dehydrated and hypothermic, but alive. Thirteen month old Erika Norby wandered out of her house wearing only a diaper and a tee shirt into -11F temperatures. She was pronounced dead, having had no pulse for approximately two hours but after being placed under a warming blanket her heart spontaneously began to beat again. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh resurrected dogs after three hours of clinical death under similar circumstances, attempting to understand the physiology of hibernation.
Why all this talk about human hibernation?
Because hibernators live longer than nonhibernators. This life extension raises the possibility of suspended animation, and all the possibilities that would afford. Generation ships could be tossed aside as interstellar travel options. Sleeper Ships could leave the pages of science fiction and carry brave pioneers to exotic planets. The replacement birth rate would plummet, and the children that were brought into the world would be raised with the benefit of not only grandparents, but capable great-great-great-great grandparents. Relationships would ebb and flow with the turning of centuries, like the floundering marriage in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Ancient languages could be preserved in the speech of native speakers. We’d have oceans of time available to us, due to the conservation of our perception of time. We could live forever!!
Except– the Hayflick Limit.
The Hayflick Limit controls the life of a cell as determined by the length of its telomeres. Each successive duplication shortens these telomeres until they reach a critical length and cease to regenerate. This inactivity of the cells correlates with aging, and eventually, with death. The appearance of death corresponds directly to the advent of sexual reproduction, and indeed, sexual reproduction and death appear to be inextricably linked. Not sex, mind you, but sexual reproduction at the cellular level. Taken in this light, true immortality, at least in ones own body, is a theoretical impossibility. Seems like your best bet is to wander into the snow, maybe our poor, snowy Faina was on to something. Maybe she’s under the frost, haunting the woods right now.
- Could People Hibernate? Lemurs Give Clues (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
- World’s Only Hibernating Primate Has Strange Sleep Patterns (livescience.com)