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The sleep project, I: igloo

January 17, 2010 Leave a comment

This occasional investigation is my friend Danny’s Big Idea, so it seems appropriate that he (with some help) built its first subject.

It’s also a salutary reminder that the Sleep Project – about travelling places by sleeping in them; about the unique intensity and intimacy of places at night and unconscious, and about the mysteries of sleep itself – has a serious side.

After all, some people don’t get to sleep out by choice; some people die doing what for us is an indulgence. A dirt cheap holiday, then, in other people’s misery; as well as other people’s poetry.

It’s also an Adventure Close to Home. To have a full day in London, cycling from Paddington to Holborn and back in a snowstorm; have time to go home, have supper and put the kids to bed; and to still get to sleep in a cave of ice: that is about as adventure-close-to-homey as one can get.

The discovery of night that is one crucial element of the project began as I followed the footpath from Danny’s house. Immediately, it was clear that snow at night has special qualities. It is luminous.

Even in the thick mizzle that marks the dawning of a thaw, this blanketing of whiteness reflects and receives enough white to make it possible to walk without a torch; though without an occasional flash to pick up other peoples’ footsteps, one would soon be helplessly lost, even in a small wood like this. Branches are an infinite maze of variations, without a single landmark to orientate the eye; gaps between bushes indistinguishable from actual routes of paths, masked by identical mounded white burdens.

And as the wood falls away and you enter the nearby field – a shallow dry valley in the dip slope of a clay-with-flints covered Down – one encounters a different kind of disorientation. I know this to be a large field fringed with trees and the sky above; but in this light it is Rothko-gone-tonal, an infinite depthless off-white merging into an infinite depthless darker-off-white merging into an infinite depthless near-black.

At all times of course, even in daylight, this tonality is the great visual gift snow gives to landscapes. Colours stand out, sore thumbs in a world rendered off-black and off-white. Even the soft shades of grey and brown, of bark, or the feathers on a pigeon’s back – are rendered deeper, more variegated by it; this is partly because everything is covered with nature’s non-colour, white; and partly because everything reflects off everything else, and is to boot crystalline with ice. All this, snow does, and all this it does uniquely. Yet in other ways it is ‘like’ other things, and some of them unexpected: the mounded, duning piles of tiny specks are ‘like’ sand; though it strikes me that, while this seems an unlikely contrast, the reasons for it being so are cultural ones. Surely it’s only since the dawn of flight that we’ve associated sand only with hot places. Surely medieval people, for example, only encountered it at the sea edge, where, just like snow, it was cold, and shot through with the dangers of being near dangerous natural forces, and intimately associated with water. And – and this is relevant to the bedrock of tonight – it is ‘like’ chalk, not only in that it gives the landscape the unexpected, unnatural, bleached-out non-colour that is white, but also because the combination of smoothness and whiteness does something similar to our expectations.

Chalk hills, even with their thin patina of grass, distort space; they seem larger, more expansive, than they really are; and walking in them thus gives an illusion of moving faster than usual, of moonwalking. And both chalk and snow store up water, giving an illusion of dryness to world that, Winterbourne, can suddenly turn to river.

And now here’s the igloo itself: a mammoth-shaped thing on the field-edge, with a crawl-in gaping entrance shielded only by thick blue and white rug. A snifter of Laphroiag-and-ginger wine and I’m in.

It’s a cold womb in here, its edge undulated by the hands that packed it out, enclosing without particularly sheltering, instead bringing the frozen landscape into sensurround closeness. And it’s strong: you could sit on it without it collapsing. But also, and here is my intimations of the hardships such experiences can bring, soft. There is just room to lie down, but if I lift my head or seek out something from a bag I am very likely to brush the walls, and each time I do, frozen specks fall down my neck or into my bag and immediately turn to cold wetness, precisely what one doesn’t want.

Indeed unpacking is surprisingly hard; everything you want to stay dry has to be enclosed in plastic or somesuch, and doing this is quite slow given that you don’t want to imprison meltwater with them. Such things must be obvious the Arctic explorers and mountaineers, but they are easily overlooked to the Adventurer Close to Home.

There are plenty of thin but insulating layers between me and the snow that is the ground’s lowest carpet; there’s also no real darkness. The self-reflecting world of faint greys penetrates in here as much as it does the fields and woods around me; if someone walks past with a torch it shines through my translucent cave like some unearthly, refracted spotlight through grisaille. In spite of this I fall asleep with surprising ease. Perhaps it’s the Laphroaig-and-Christmas-cake nightcap.

But I awaken in the small hours. This is the time when elderly couples in unheated flats shuffle quietly and coldly off the mortal coil; it is the time when even ordinary campers are most likely to awaken with a jolt. One even wonders if there is not some body mechanism that triggers a moment of survival-instinct wakefulness just as the combination of the coldest, darkest reaches of the night and the slowest, lowest dip in the body’s own rhythms can otherwise spell the greatest potential danger.

Yet it’s not a very clear-headed wakefulness. My perception of my situation comes slowly, slipping in and out of unconsciousness, and it takes a while, for which read seconds or perhaps hours, to analyse. At first I am just very aware of cold. It is emanating all around me; not the passive, almost cosy-coldness of a cold room and a warm bed, but a radiating cold coming from inches away from my body and pressing its energy upon me, like a radiator reversed. The contrast between my freezing face and my legs, which are so hot I have had to take my trousers down, is so great it is uncomfortable. And gradually I become aware of other things. There is a strip of coldness running thin and hard down one side of me, where the sleeping bag’s zip runs. I’ve not been aware of cold with such precision before. One of my feet has two layers of socks, the other does not; and the one that does not is getting that heavy pain of the unshakeable Cold Foot. Again, a certain precision of perception that perhaps goes with a body protesting at what is being done to it. I realise I am getting more, not less, uncomfortable.

Hours, or perhaps seconds, later, I realise that one layer of sleeping bag has slipped off, and pull it back on again. This seems to be the root of the problem. Why did it take me so long to work that out? Something approaching comfort slowly returns.

From then on, the sleep-pattern is typical of outdoor sleeping; one wakes more often than at home, and a bit of one is always ready to wake completely, halfaware of the occasional gaw and flap of a partridge, the footstep of some invisible mammal, frozen from its burrow or food-source (there is, I note, no dawn chorus). Yet one also seem to draw a unique kind of restedness, from the freshness of the air, the openness of the environment, the firmness of the ground; a kind of rest one never gets at home. One suspects that a hunter-gatherer would sleep more like a cat than we do, not imagining that nights should be unbroken by wakefulness or days unbroken by sleep.

At some point, however, the final key to comfort is found: put you face beneath the cover of the sleeping bag. Not easy when you are as tall as me – the bag is not designed for such treatment – and entailing occasional discomfort, as breath is slower to draw in, which the body never likes; but snug-as-a-bug warm. And there is really no shortage of fresh air: Danny’s equivalent of my 3am survival call, which occurred a couple of nights ago, entailed a brief, and probably equally ill-thought out, concern for the shortage of fresh air in here. And this led to a midnight engineering trip with his fingers that punched neat little air holes in the roof. Thanks, Danny: the result may or may not be life-saving, but they presumably put paid for good to any attempt to test out the myth that igloos are warm. This one is (perhaps it always was) an inexhaustible fount of frozen air.

I think I’m awake, but when there is footfall outside and a flask of tea and a bacon sarnie I realise I was dead to the world. The outside has lifted a few shades of grey; details have revealed themselves in the field, which has revealed itself to be tussocky and broken, but had still pixilated its way to unbroken whiteness in the ‘darkness’ of the previous light.

I lie for a long time, watching the lightness shift on the crystal walls, listening to the frozen spaces. Then I leave for the school run, at once rested and sleepy from my first dose of the Sleep Project, and one thrilled by Adventures Close to Home.

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