Rachel Carson and the Case for Hibernation

In a “just not quite fatal” winter, Rachel Carson recommends we divert our efforts of mastery from nature to ourselves.

“Where does Goldilocks go when it’s cold?”

I watched my grandpa set down the white painter’s bucket full of fish food, eager to plunge my 7-ish-year-old hands inside. The pellets smelled earthy and comforting, like the tool shed where we hang snake skins. I grabbed a grubby fistful and scattered them across the pond like rain.

It was February in Appalachia, and the ground was a soggy cocktail of frosty mud and orange earthworms. I dangled my feet over the edge of the dock and peered into the pond that sits cradled in the valley of my grandparents farm. I watched for Goldilocks, the bright yellow carpenter fish that had somehow managed to outlive two golden retrievers and a couple of mountain mutts.

My grandpa eased himself into the Adirondack chair next to me and considered my question, idly peeling black paint strips from the rotting wood. “She’s probably buried down deep in the mud, where it’s warm,” he told me.

North Carolina winters bring a few treasured days for sledding and many, many more for curling up by the window with a mug of hot apple cider, inhaling the smell of burning pine. My grandpa spends the summers stacking the firewood beneath the same blue tarp that we convert into a slip-and-slide with Dawn dish soap during August’s stickiest afternoons.

In July, the cousins run shrieking across the farm, racing to wrestle up a shed whitetail buck antler from mounds of rotting maple leaves. February, though, is quiet. Muddy snow muffles the creaks of spindly pines swaying beneath the weight of hawk’s nests and unforgiving wind. My ears feel full of cotton. My toes go numb. Down blankets beckon. Goldilocks burrows down deep in the mud.

The winter season brings flurries of snow and activity. In December, expectations slow to a drip at school and work, and pick up in gatherings of long-lost friends coming home for the holidays and dinners with distant family. Sweater boxes peek out from beneath beds. Tinsel and string lights and peppermint nourish the body and mind.

But for those of us living north and south of the tropics, winter’s true shadow comes later—after the sugar-cookie rush wears off and the resolutions lose their shine, but the sun still departs early. The days are still short, the nights biting and hushed. Many warm-blooded creatures make themselves scarce. They find somewhere warm to nestle, slow their beating hearts, and take stock of their reserves.

As Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring, “Man, however much he may like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature.” She goes on, “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

We humans spend a good deal of time trying to separate ourselves from our wildness. We claim free will, conscience, consciousness, and dominion. We build floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the rain but stand just outside its reach. Then we adjust the thermostat and drag tropical plants indoors to keep us company.

Although all mammals share a history of hibernation, human’s more recent evolutionary ancestors came from the tropics, which doesn’t suggest a tendency towards this long-term metabolic stupor. But over the last hundred thousand years, give or take, we’ve scattered across the continents like rain.

Humans have efficient blood. We can easily regulate our internal body temperatures, which allows us to plant roots and thrive from the Arctic to the equator. Our neighbors vary in form, but many share the same strategy to get through the coldest, grayest months. Squirrels, bats, bears, and even some species of lemur hibernate. They contend with winter food scarcity by stocking up on fat reserves and slowing their metabolism, slipping into a lethargic state that mirrors the lackadaisical (and noncommittal) comings and goings of the white winter sun.

Modern humans triumph over winter food scarcity by braving the icy mud-slush in the grocery store parking lot. Fire, agriculture, and sweaters also help. We’ve decided not to let the seasons dictate our activity, going so far as to alter our clocks twice a year. But even when I try to adhere to this consistency, gritting my teeth, cranking the heat, jogging in the scant daylight, and meeting up with friends, I cannot shake the formless weight of winter.

The pressure bears down gradually, like a sleepy fox curling up on my chest. It is a listless heaviness, an inclination to burrow, to sit in the mud, to think and read and write, to eat only potatoes and make myself scarce. The cold and darkness do not make me sad or nostalgic, but contemplative. I take inventory of the sunny months and anticipate their return.

While we cannot voluntarily drop down into a metabolic crawl (although some scientists think we one day could), there is merit in honoring the integrity of the seasons within the body, rather than straining to adhere to the rhythms of a different time.

Carson agreed that we should check these imposed expectations. “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?” she writes.

Instead, we should let each season lean on the next and recognize that none can be fully enjoyed in isolation.

Springtime is for birth. April and May bring emergence and rejuvenation, a long, languid stretch of stiff arms and legs. But that flowering outburst of energy must come from somewhere. One cannot tap reserves without ever building them.

The summer brings its own rhythm. Long sunny days beckon us outside. It is so effortless, so necessary to watch the late sunset, trample dewy grass with friends, croak back at the bullfrogs, and catch slick river snails in glass jars.

October is for cardamom and bounty. Without spring’s roots in winter fat and summer labor under the hottest sun, there would be no peach crop. No pumpkins. No squash, green beans, or volunteer sunflowers. There would be no cool afternoons canning cinnamon apples and snapping peas into a wicker basket.

And in the winter, we put the gardens to sleep. We dig up the last few purple potatoes and roll the tired tomato vines into the soil for the orange earthworms. When we honor the land during all its seasons, we honor our bodies within the land.

With innovation and invention, we’ve improved life’s quality and sped its pace. While it is not socially or economically viable (or recommended) to fully withdraw in the winter, it is certainly okay to spend some of the deepest, darkest pits of February buried in a book, when time and circumstances allow.

“We, in this generation, must come to terms with nature,” writes Rachel Carson, “and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

Count your cans of cinnamon apples and green beans. Eat only potatoes. Question what is working and experiment with what is not. Take time to heal and time to expect. Bend your quiet body to the expectations of the earth.

And in the end, February in all her dismal glory reminds us that we are not separate from nature, but rather joyfully inclined to shove two hands into a dusty bucket of fish food and burrow down deep in the mud, where it’s warm.

RCC National Environment Leadership Presidential Fellow – Molly Herring –
University of Santa Cruz

RCC Presidential Fellow Molly Herring is pursuing a Masters in Science Communications from UC Santa Cruz. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a double major in Biology and Global Studies and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. She has been published in Oceanographic MagazineCoastal ReviewThe Marine Diaries, and Cellar Door.