Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Tuesday Slice: Hibernation isn't just for dormice

"There is not enough night left for us.  We have lost our true instincts for darkness, its invitation to spend some time in the proximity of our dreams.  Our personal winters are so often accompanied by insomnia: perhaps we're drawn towards that unique space of intimacy and contemplation, darkness and silence, without really knowing what we're seeking.  Perhaps, after all, we are being urged towards our own comfort.

"Sleep is not a dead space, but a doorway to a different kind of consciousness--one that is reflective and restorative..."

--Katherine May, Wintering:  The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times 

The arrival of May's book was apropos.  It is winter, after all, and we can all agree that this past year qualifies as difficult times.  Without conscious attempt, I found myself reading her chapter on visiting Stonehenge for the Winter Solstice on the eve of our own.  Austin is nowhere near Wiltshire, England, but I did have better luck viewing the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction last night than May did of witnessing the sunrise between monoliths on a cloudy morning.

I'm only halfway through the book, and May's chapter on hibernation has resonated the most with me so far.  Perhaps it's the residual effects from our cabin Getaway ten days ago--forty or so hours of living by our internal clocks, now barely replicated by our school holiday break.  Ask any teacher what the biggest difference between work hours and break hours is, and I'll bet the answer is the amount of sleep they're getting, and when they are getting it.  

There is an interesting phenomenon May discusses in relation to hibernation.  Dormice are one of the few English animals that truly hibernate, but even they wake up every ten days or so to reevaluate and repair their lodgings before falling back into unconsciousness.  When scientists subjected human volunteers to sleep schedules based on the availability of light--had them attempt sleep for the fourteen hours of winter darkness--they found a consistent waking period of one to two hours just after midnight.  This time was known as "the watch", and documents from pre-electric times describe these hours as contemplative, dreamy, a time to connect with a lover or family members. People then fell back asleep until daybreak.  I'm tempted to replicate this experiment, but I'm not sure the rest of my family would appreciate tiptoeing past my bedroom for the five hours they are usually awake past winter sunset. 

Instead, I find myself wanting to dim the lights at sunset, turn the volume down, engage in gentle activity.  My visible productivity seems at an all-time low, but my thoughts are constant, my attention diverted as other streams of consciousness form.  I'm noticing more and talking less.  There aren't as many presents under the tree, but do we really need more?  The Nativity set isn't up yet, but there's today to get it done...and didn't the Holy Family find shelter just barely in time for Mary to give birth?  I am learning to accept what is and what isn't due to this extraordinary year.

I'm almost saddened by the fact that from here on out, daylight hours will be increasing.  I'm ready to hibernate, to keep watch, to dream by candlelight in these waning winter nights.  There are gifts in the darkness; the restful retreat is just what I need during these difficult times.


  1. Ooh, I wanted to read Wintering but my favourite independent bookstore had sold it out. They will get new copies in two weeks. After reading your slice I am even more determined to get it. I am all for hibernation.

  2. I have long said that the world would be a better place if people took more naps. I had not heard of this book, but just place a hold on it at my library. Thanks for writing about it today!

  3. You mentioned so many intriguing points in this slice. I must learn more about this book too! Thank you for sharing.

  4. This is really interesting about hibernation! This line - "This time was known as "the watch", and documents from pre-electric times describe these hours as contemplative, dreamy, a time to connect with a lover or family members." - I wonder if I can learn to appreciate those middle of the night wakeups if I think of these as "the watch"? Thank you for this!

  5. So good - I will have to look for that book. I am fascinated by the detail about "the watch." I've seen this in other places, too, and lately as I get older, I find that I do this. I will often wake up two hours or more after I go to sleep, and I read on my Kindle so I don't have to turn on lights and wake my husband. Then eventually I fall back to sleep. I like knowing that this waking is normal.

  6. Light is one of my favorite themes, Chris - but how important is the balance with dark for the sake of sleep, as you illustrate so beautifully. I've read about that ancient tendency to wake in the couple of hours after midnight, and I am enjoying this connection to dormice which re-evaluate and repair before resuming sleep. Just yesterday I heard about a spike in cortisol - related to female hormones as we grow older - that causes us to wake between 2:00-3:00 a.m. and does not allow for returning to that vitally-needed sleep. Not healthy...Like you, I find myself talking less these days. I wasn't really aware of it. My husband mentioned it. I know it's because of that same constant stream-of-consciousness you mention; I am almost semi-meditating all the time, needing to extract a deeper sense of things. There's also a sense of conservation in it. A normally calm person, I recognize that this long, long year, with its myriad stress-inducing strangenesses, coincides with my own transitional stage of life. I emphasize long because it is eroding a usually reliable resiliency. We are an exhausted people, needing rest more than ever, when it seems to be most elusive. Your last lines about a restful retreat are so lovely - "dream by candlelight in waning winter light" - perfect. Yes, please! And this does it - I must order this book! A merry, restful, peaceful Christmas to you and all yours.