In spring and summer, everything is green and idyllic, with every tree boasting its own coat of leaves. But in winter, the trees are stripped of their leaves and are forced to show their bare branches. A once lush, beautiful forest becomes a field of bony, crooked wooden skeletons. No matter how magnificent a tree may be in the summer, you can see its true form in winter.
But are the trees ashamed to show their true selves? The reason trees bare themselves in winter is so that they can store up energy and chlorophyll to produce more leaves in spring, when there is more sunshine. The branches continuously reach upward and outward, biding until better time has come.
It is the souls of the trees we see in the winter – continuously struggling to survive, but always holding on until it can bloom its flowers and leaves again. No matter how tough the conditions, these souls live on.
A person’s body temperature is always maintained between 36.5~37.5°C. This is because enzymes, which are crucial in all physiological reactions in the body, work most efficiently at this temperature. As physiology is essentially a series of chemical reactions, it is heavily dependent on temperature. If the temperature falls, chemical reactions occur slower and vice versa. When body temperature falls below 35°C, metabolism becomes too slow and it poses a risk to the person’s health. This is known as hypothermia.
How does hypothermia affect the body? Hypothermia is categorised into three classes depending on the severity.
Mild hypothermia (32~35°C) leads to the slowing of bodily functions, tremors and difficulty in walking. The patient’s speech is impeded and other neurological symptoms such as decreased judgement skills and confusion start to appear. Also, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate rise.
Moderate hypothermia (28~32°C) causes paralysis of muscles and extreme fatigue (they may complain of being sleepy). As blood (carrying heat) is rerouted to major organs, the skin (especially lips and extremities) become white or purple and very cold. Neurological symptoms worsen with amnesia, memory loss, severe confusion and delusion beginning to show. As sustained hypothermia leads to the tremors stopping, one should not take the lack of tremors as a good sign. Heart rate becomes irregular and arrhythmia may occur.
Severe hypothermia (20~28°C) leads to chemical reactions becoming so slowed that physiological functions that support life decline dramatically. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all lower to dangerous levels and the heart and lungs may stop functioning. As the patient’s major organs begin to shut down, they enter a state of unconsciousness and eventually, clinical death.
As you can see, hypothermia is a highly dangerous situation that can kill. There are some other fascinating facts about hypothermia.
20~50% of hypothermia death cases are associated with paradoxical undressing. This is a strange phenomenon where the person begins to take off their clothes due to confusion and a lack of judgement from the hypothermia. One theory suggests it is related to the cold damaging the hypothalamus (which controls body temperature), causing the brain to think that the body temperature is rising. Whatever the reason, it is extremely dangerous as it worsens the hypothermia.
As explained above, severe hypothermia leads to death. But interestingly, hypothermia also protects organs. This is why organs for transplanting are transported in ice. Similarly, there are examples of people who “died” from hypothermia recovering with no brain damage. Because of this, medical professionals traditionally say: “they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead”. In fact, if there is something wrong with the patient’s circulation and there is risk of damage to their organs (such as in surgery), sometimes the patient’s body temperature is forced down with ice water injections and cooling blankets, known as protective hypothermia.
Cordyceps sinensis is a fungus known as dongchoong-hacho(동충하초, 冬蟲夏草) in Korea, with the same characters used in China and Japan. It literally translates to “worm in the winter, herb in the summer”. It is a peculiar fungus with an interesting life cycle. In the summer when the weather is warm, the fungus infects its host (usually ghost moth larvae) through spores. The infected caterpillar is slowly filled with mycelium (thready part of fungi), until it becomes mummified with only the shell remaining. The fungus keeps replicating until it bursts out of the caterpillar’s head with a club-like fruit body (which holds the fungus’ spores). This makes it look as if the caterpillar, which was an insect in the winter, turned into a fungus in the summer (technically it is at this stage, but the caterpillar is long dead). In English, it is also called caterpillar fungus or vegetable worm (which is a misnomer as fungi are not vegetables).
Cordyceps sinensis is an important ingredient in traditional Eastern medicine as it is believed to be a perfect balance between yin and yang due to it possessing both animal and plant (actually a fungus) properties. It is used to treat many diseases from fatigue to cancer.
Although Western medicine usually looks down on and ignores Eastern medicine, research shows that Cordyceps sinensis actually has medicinal properties. Cordycepin, a chemical extracted from the fungus, has been shown to inhibit the growth of viruses, fungi and tumours through its inhibitory actions on a certain protein. There is also research that suggests it can protect the body against radiation poisoning.
Spring. The warm sunshine and the soft breeze form a balance to breathe new life into everything – flowers, trees, hibernating animals, babies. The baby grows on the nutrition that is love. The baby spends the most peaceful, free stage of childhood and experiences new things every day. He learns life slowly as he grows like a fresh sprout. Unfortunately, at this stage the sprout is also vulnerable to harm, and these scars will be a burden for the rest of the baby’s life.
Summer. The hot, burning sun, the boundless, clear ocean. The hot, burning love and desires, the boundless, clear possibilities life brings. The boy spends the happiest moments in his life, and discovers what he wants and who he is. Through this he also develops obsessions; his main obsession is love – so hot that it may even burn up into ashes or cause scalding wounds. He enjoys the present, without knowing the weight of the world and true pain. To him, the future is a land of infinite dreams and hope. His boyhood times burn like a roaring flame, and happiness reaches a climax.
Autumn. The leaves, bleached yellow, fall gently. The endless and cloudless sky. The cold wind. The boy, now a young adult, laments why life and love are so painful, and why he must suffer so much. The future that was once full of dreams has now become a hopeless reality. As the leaves die away, so do the boy’s hopes, romance and his identity. Can he pull through this bitter adolescence? What does he wonder while staring at the dead leaves? No one truly understands his thoughts and pain, and he trudges along a road strewn with leaves. The passion and heat of summer have completely disappeared.
Winter. There is no life. Only white snow covers the world, turning it into a blank page. The man feels that there is no meaning to life, and looks back on his life. The dream-like spring, the passionate summer, the despairing autumn, the end of the four seasons – winter. But then, he finally realises. The naive spring, the foolish summer, the pain he overcame through autumn. The man looks back at how he has grown and developed, and turns his attention to his inner self for the meaning of life and peace. After overcoming his mid-life crisis, he clears his mind and reaches nirvana.
Spring. A spring comes again, new life arises once more. The old man calmly smiles and thinks. He now understands the true meaning of life and is satisfied with his. He sees a baby facing another set of four seasons and thinks: “That child will walk a similar journey as I did.” He now knows that life cycles, and that spring will indubitably return always.