The brilliant snow and frigid air remind that this is the season of dormancy, that virtually all that is stirring is under a blanket of snow and a frozen few inches of soil, where roots rest and wait, earthworms burrow deep, and microbes and fungal hyphae bide their time. Dormancy does not mean nothing is happening: it means, rather, that things are happening that we cannot control or see. Like the daily sleep of humans that restores our brains, this sleep of the earth pauses and prepares for the great work to come. The sunny winter days are a particular kind of feast for the eyes: delicate shadings of snow, long blue shadows of trees at each end of the day, exposed textures of tree trunks and their subdued hues, and the subtle variation of bare trees at the woodland’s rim in restrained beauty. The sunrises and sunsets color the sky in pastels, or more bold, flaming, yellow and orange, and the sun sparkles on the new snowfall.
In the cold when plants are dormant, animals need special attention. Wild birds appreciate the sunflower seed we put out. Hungry hawks and owls, whose regular fare is hiding gratefully in snowy tunnels, are more avid about our chickens, so the dogs need to be watchful of them. Chickens can’t scrounge under the snow and need additional grain; the frost free pump for the cattle freezes after all and water needs to be pumped each day. The early calves that come just as the weather turns coldest need fresh dry hay, a good licking right away by the Dam to dry them off, and to be watched after birth to be sure they find a teat. The dogs huddle more and sleep more in any warm spot, as well as tussle and bark for warming exercise. We bring old and arthritic Abby, the best guardian of the five farm dogs, in at night so she is able to be more active and agile in the daytime. My own arthritis helps me remember this kindness.
This season we pay attention in a different way. The growing season offers the particular kind of attention that comes from serving, from active engagement; dormancy allows pausing to learn by seeing. We watch the wild birds and the hawks and the cavorting dogs. From the window before sundown we watch those calves that have found their footing, that race earnestly back and forth across the pasture without other object than dutiful response to an overwhelming urge to move. We watch the new snowfalls and the colors of the sun’s progress and the movement of other farm residents.
Mornings, and especially at sunset on clear days we ski. We have trails around the farm perimeter and through the woods, and this year we also ski through the hedge row to our neighbor to the west, through the meadow and across the soy bean field. We have a loop around her woods enclosing the massive Burr oak and along beside the big sycamore.
We slow down. After the hurry and urgency of the growing season, I think it’s nice to have do-nothing time in winter, to read and plan and write in the long evenings. We work on essentials and we work shorter days.
We are now past the winter equinox; the daylight is shifting toward the ends of days that grow perceptibly longer. I suddenly realize it is mid February and time to start seedlings. There is much yet to do before the work of spring preparation and planting: inside projects that there is no time to do in summer, both maintenance and creative endeavors. I have more time for music and writing and visits.
The dormancy of nature in winter in this zone is an inevitable occurrence, but in a world that focusses on keeping busy, on validation by accomplishment dormancy has its challenges as well. Humans tend to chafe at inactivity after a while. The ego quickly demands more to chew on and begins to distract and fragment. Restlessness and lack of focus creep up on us, and the temptation is to prematurely return to continuous activity. If we are overly attuned to the cosmos, the human created construct, it can be a real challenge to accept the stillness and unseen operations of dormancy. The Judeo-Christian concept of Sabbath is surely dormancy’s near relative with its emphasis on enjoying what is provided for which we do not labor. We need the periodic reminder that all things come from God, that we do not, cannot, make the world that we need for life.