The Lost Art of Hibernation
December 21st is the Winter Solstice and officially the first day of winter. Usually here in the Ozarks, fall begins in October when the leaves turn beautiful reds, golds, and browns and the squirrels start scurrying for nuts to store up for winter. Our resident black bear passes through foraging one last time to increase his fat content, and ground hogs begin to insulate their burrows with dried grass and some hay stolen from our barn. All of this is in preparation for a long winter’s nap, which usually begins around Christmas time.
When my father was growing up here on the farm, people were more in tune with the rhythm of nature than they are now. Electricity didn’t arrive here until the 1950’s, so evenings were spent with the glow of kerosene lanterns and light from the fireplace. Daylight savings time kicks in somewhere in early November here, so my family began to settle in to bed around 6 or 7 o’clock and rise again just before sunrise the next morning to gather up the cows for milking. By the time the sun was up, most of the cows were milked, hogs were fed, chickens were turned out and fed, and Granny had breakfast on the table. The men ate a hearty meal of bacon, sausage, eggs, biscuits, gravy, oatmeal, and maybe some stewed fruit which had been canned in the fall. Occasionally, instead of the bacon and sausage they had pork chops or fried chicken.
After this nourishing meal, the men left to carry on with the rest of the day’s work. Grandpa went to his forge, and Daddy might walk the fence line to check the wire, or go to the barn to mend harness. If the weather was bad (which it usually was in those long ago winters), Daddy and Grandpa settled themselves in the living room close to a cozy fire. Daddy would read or carve on a block of wood, (he loved to make yo-yos and wooden cars, or maybe a new sling shot). And after cleaning, Granny would join them with some sort of sewing project. When my Aunt Alta was still living, she might sew doll clothes or challenge her brother to a game of marbles after she helped Granny with the meals and cleaning up. The day would pass quietly. They would visit some, amuse themselves, and Grandpa would doze before the fire. Lunch would be a light meal – soup and sandwiches, and dinner might be the same.
As the sun began to set, the men once more moved outside to put up the chickens, milk the cows, check on the hogs, and bring in fire wood and water in from the well for the next day. Then, as darkness settled in once more, they bestirred themselves for bed.
This doesn’t sound like your typical farm does it? Today, we are in a constant rush. Up early to do farm chores. Grab a bite of something on the way out of the door to drive to a job miles away. Home do more chores, grab a simple dinner, and park ourselves in front of the television for the evening. Around 10:00 or 11:00 we ‘hit the hay’ for a short sleep to awake bleary eyed the next morning to start the process all over. On the weekends, its even worse. Women are trying to catch up on all the cleaning and laundry and men are out doing all of those things they haven’t been able to get to through the week. Put in that new fence post, put a cover over the hole in the chicken house, run to the feed store or hardware store. And again, grab-what-you-can for meals.
If you don’t work outside of the homestead, we still seem to feel that every waking moment must be gainfully occupied. A long list of projects is posted on the refrigerator and we tell ourselves that these must be completed as soon as possible. In the evenings, we might settle down to watch some television, or turn to the pile of DIY project books, farming magazines, gardening books, or even novels, and find ourselves up late into the night, or falling into bed early from exhaustion.
The old time farmer knew the value of winter time. He watched nature constantly for signs of some sort. Woolly caterpillars meant a cold winter ahead. He took note of migrations patters, the phases of the moon, the activity of woodland ‘critters’. And he also saw the value of hibernation. An old preacher once said that God made the winter as a time of rest. A time to stay indoors, read, sit quietly to listen to God’s voice, and rest up for the spring to come. As I grow older, I’m inclined to agree with him. Rest is a very important requirement.
We will leave patches of ground to lie follow over the winter, so why not us too? What is there really out there that cannot wait until Spring? There will always be those emergency situations where wire breaks on a fence, the pig pen must be drained due to excessive rain, barn roofing is loosened by the wind or extra feeding must be done during snow and ice. But if that is not the case, then why not relax and rest as the rest of nature is doing? Sit in the quiet and listen to the silence. Drink a cup of tea or coffee and listen to the rain fall, or watch the snow come down in gently swirling mists. Read those farm magazines, garden books, or set yourself down and study for the afternoon.
Then go to bed early, so you can get up with the sun and enjoy a brand new day. When spring comes the days will grow longer and warmer, and there will be a thousand things to accomplish. New lambs, calves, piglets, and poultry will be arriving and demanding your attention. It will be time to turn over the garden and begin planting. Then there will be weeding and watering and harvest time. Not to mention canning, drying and freezing those crops. Repair work will be needed around the farm, and with the long days you will forget the time and work later than you intend. Nights will be shorter, and you will rest less.
So for now, join me in hibernation. Lets move slower, do only what is necessary, and let our bodies and minds take a much needed rest. You will be surprised what a difference it will make come spring.