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  • Writer's pictureKaaren Poole

Comfy in the Subnivean Zone

I recently found out about something called the "subnivean zone," which is a type of natural micro-climate which can exist under an accumulation of snow deeper than 6 inches. My interest piqued, I starting surfing the net to see what I could find out. I came across a most enchanting illustration by Jenn "Nacho" Prinzing called "Subnivean Garden," which you can view by clicking the button below.

In any case, I knew I wanted to do an art journal spread about mice living in the subnivean zone, and the delight of seeing Jenn's illustration just spurred me on.

I began with the individual mouse drawings, then composed them on my art journal page, glued them in place, and went from there.

I drew the outlines of what I thought might be the subnivean zone and the tunnels in the snowpack above. For the background above the snow, I searched the internet for snow scenes, printed a few, then used them for collage depicting the night scene. I tore one of the collage pieces to approximately fit around the mouse poking her head up through the tunnel, then filled in between the mouse and the collage piece with paint, trying to match my painting to the colors and patterns of the collage.

From there, it was just a matter of painting. Exactly how to depict the cross-section of the snow pack wasn't clear. The best I could come up with was, given the light shining through the snow from above, the upper parts would be lighter and the lower parts, darker. Then, as far as the insides of the tunnels went, it was pure speculation: shading along the "roof" area, then lighter along the "floors."

And now it occurs to me I haven't explained what the subnivean zone is, so here goes. When snow first falls on the ground, it settles on fallen leaves and any weeds or grasses, leaving a gap between the bottom of the snow and the actual ground. As the snow deepens, the lowest parts of the snow sublimate (pass from a solid to a gaseous state, skipping the liquid state altogether) into water vapor which then freezes to form an icy layer - a 'roof' - at the bottom of the snowpack. The temperatures above the snow can plunge well below zero, but the subnivean zone stay right around a (relatively) cozy 32 degrees.

It's been fun to draw the mice, think about what life must be like in the subnivean zone, then bring my imaginary under-the-snow zone to life. Thank goodness nature has made this wonderful provision for the tiny animals in cold winter areas.

That's all true. But since it takes at least 6" of snowpack for these zones to exist, what do the little ones do when the snow first starts to fall? Obviously there must be something, as they make it to the subnivean zone once it comes into being. But what? Oh, life is just so complicated! Isn't it wonderful?

PS I find it fascinating -and a nice surprise - that many times details are every bit as, if not more, interesting that the whole art piece!

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