The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 22: Dec. 23, 2011

KYPP Nugget: December Dance

A Small Change this Month: Due to seasonal timeliness, this nugget is based directly on this week's column; in the next nugget we'll send you Conrad's column, "Deep Diving".
December Dance: Background Research
West Hill at Hawthorne Valley Farm
The winter sun setting over West Hill at Hawthorne Valley Farm.

What do winter survival strategies, historical accounts of daily life, hog butchering, and solstice have in common, you might ask?  This week's column definitely drew together a few distinct topics (what happened to be swirling around in my head last week), so it is perhaps worth considering these strands separately, in a little more depth.

Winter Survival

The biologist Bernd Heinrich's popular book "Winter World" explores the question of how animals of all sorts (from frogs to bears) survive in winter.  The excerpts in the column come from Chapter 21: Bears in Winter.  I had turned to this chapter thinking of bears as evincing the classical example of hibernation, but was initially struck by Heinrich's description of the contrasting human strategy, as it seemed to resonate with the sometimes harried feel of the season:

"There are two ways to beat an energy crunch brought on by winter.  One approach, used by the kinglet and human beings alike, is to work harder and harder to try to maintain a profit margin, even as we pay ever-higher heating costs in the face of ever-dwindling resources."

Of course this language of "profit margin" and "heating costs" is referring to metabolic energy, not money.  Left there, though, one wonders how humans make it (whether survival or simply maintaining sanity) in what must surely become a case of diminishing returns.  Heinrich goes on to address this:

"There comes a point, however, when it is better to drop out in an effort to save as much energy as possible.  The latter is sometimes a necessity and it is common in many animals in winter.  It may even occur in humans, given the right circumstances."

It is at this point that Heinrich reflects on his own (human) experience.  The following paragraph especially highlights the natural/cultural dance that is the thematic weave of the column.  What part of the way our lives are shaped is natural tendency, born out of such things as winter survival?  What part is influenced by our social or cultural context (arguably, a different form of natural tendencies)?  Describing himself, Heinrich writes:

"Here in midwinter at the high latitudes of Vermont and Maine, I start to feel sleepy at about 5 pm and I have little trouble curling up in a snug bed as soon as it gets dark...Of course my semi-hibernation tendencies are blunted ever so slightly by social pressures.  In my culture it is just plain lazy to sleep fourteen hours per day.  So, as a result of social conditioning I routinely extend my winter day with artificial light in the evening and with caffeine in the morning.  Most important, my natural tendencies may be suppressed because I'm not on a stringent diet that winter would normally impose.  My calorie intake is undiminished and sufficient to keep up my energy level."

One wonders if people historically, especially in the countryside, had social patterns more amenable to Heinrich's tendency towards "semi-hibernation."

Hillside Echoes: An Historical Account

This typewritten reflection of life in the early 20th century in the environs of Hillsdale is completely captivating.  The author, Ruth Tinker, lived from 1898 to 1991, and describes in sumptuous detail different topics of historical life, whether "butter making", "games," the "smoke house", or "Christmas."  What emerges is a picture of country life focused around the processes of agriculture and food preparation, as well as family and community relations.  As one would expect, these often entwine.  Writing under the heading of "Apple Cider", Tinker paints an appealing winter picture:

"Winter evenings meant games or cards, a big dish of apples and often cracked nuts chosen from such kinds as butternuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts, or freshly popped corn, and of course cider for those who wanted it."

It also seems fitting to share Tinker's account of Christmas, which draws more closely than one might expect to solstice traditions - perhaps a reflection of how closely attuned rural life was to the seasonal changes:

"Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were given to the adoration of Light and the return of the Sun.  Light coming again from darkness was represented by the symbols of the tree, the lights, Santa (or God, the gracious giver of gifts)."

She also describes a delicious Christmas feast that might include anything from stuffed poultry, to a "good pork roast", seeing as hog butchering had likely occurred just a few weeks before.

Hog Butchering

It was quite an experience to have the chance to attend a pig slaughter and hog butchering demonstration recently at North Plain Farm in Housatonic, Massachusetts. The event was put on by Community Cooperative Farms, who had raised the pig.  It involved the participation of several professionals skilled in the traditional process of hog butchering, including Berkshire native Jake Levin (below), who works as a "nose to tail" butcher in Brooklyn.  You can find out more about his work, and see additional pictures from the hog butchering at his blog, The Butcher and the Baker:  Above all I was struck by the way the process followed, almost exactly, Tinker's five page historic account of hog butchering. 

And so traditions that were once antiquated have been revived, a seasonal moment reflects throughout traditions past and present, and the December Dance continues. 

Butcher Jake Levin at work at Northplain Farm
"Nose to tail" butcher Jake Levin at work.


Heinrich, Bernd. 2003.  Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Tinker, Ruth. Hillside Echoes. Hillsdale: Roeliff Jansen Historical Society.

12/22/2011 Column
December Dance

by Anna Duhon

December, perhaps more than any other time of the year, highlights the rich dance between cultural traditions and natural rhythms.  The most defining rhythmic change in this seasonal moment is surely the light.  There is the slow dwindling of day to the darkest point - the solstice time now upon us.

I was visiting a farmer’s greenhouses the other day, and was reminded again by the farmer that this time of contracted light is the hardest period for plants to grow.  By contrast in six weeks, he said, new greens will be taking off.

Of course this solstice time in December holds both the greatest darkness and the threshold through which comes the return of the light.  Even as you read this, light will be starting to linger a little longer each day. 

While we may not celebrate the solstice with as much fanfare as cultures a little farther north, our holiday rituals and traditions are deeply rooted in the return of the light.  One can see this everywhere: in the Christmas lights adorning houses; the lighting of the trees and advent wreaths; the eight nights of Hanukkah each marked by the kindling of a light; the seven candles lit during Kwanzaa; the candlelit services and gatherings; the burning of the Yule log.  Many of these traditions are explicitly about maintaining light in darkness, or actively calling back the light.

Yet on the surface, our cultural traditions this time of year might also seem to be a little out of step with the rhythms of nature.  After all, while many of the animals and plants around us are slowing down, settling into dormancy, or already hibernating, we human creatures are often in a sped-up frenzy of gift buying, holiday parties, family gatherings, and the like.

One way to look at this is that we have, lingering in our traditions, a bit of a gray squirrel’s approach to oncoming winter – lots of frenetic nut burying energy.  The biologist and popular science writer, Bernd Heinrich, writes in Winter World, his book about animal survival in winter that “there are two ways to try to beat an energy crunch brought on by winter.”  One, of course, is the path of energy conservation epitomized by hibernation, but the other – one he ascribes to humans, along with many other creatures – is to expend more and more effort in securing the resources needed to continue to have energy to spend for warmth and activity. 

Much of the hard work of late fall preparations, of course, was traditionally focused around food preservation for the winter.  I recently picked up a very engaging historical account of life in this area a hundred or so years ago put out by the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society in which the author, Ruth Tinker, recounts in great detail the elaborate food preparations that people made for winter. 

Much like the squirrels, people also participated actively in ‘nutting time.’  “In the Fall following the first heavy frosts, the children and adults would ‘a nutting go’,” writes Tinker, as she goes on to describe the chestnuts, hickory nuts, hazelnut and butternuts that were gathered and carefully dried and stored in hanging sacks or milk cans for winter use.

The description that most captivates me, however, is that of the autumn hog butchering.   The household pigs, born in spring, were most often butchered all at once in the fall.  In part this was to keep from having to overwinter livestock but also, as Tinker writes, “the preparation and curing of the meat meant a lot of work and the women did not want to go through all of that again later on.”  Indeed, she goes on to describe at great length how a pig would be transformed into all the pork products that would keep a family well fed through winter: the hams, shoulders, and bacon cured in a molasses barrel then hung in the smoke house; the high quality leaf lard, rendered and stored in jars in the cellar for making pies, biscuits and the like; other chunks of fat packed into earthen jars in layers of salt to make “salt pork”, an addition to many a dish; trimmings, fat and lean meat ground, seasoned and packed into the cleaned intestines to make sausage; the head pieces soaked, cooked and packed in cheese cloth under a weighted stone to make head cheese, enjoyed at breakfast with griddle cakes; and of course, because of the late fall timing, many a “good pork roast” for Christmas dinner.

These rhythms are perhaps no longer as present in our culture, though there are signs of revival.  Last weekend I attended a traditional hog butchering and pig roast put on by a group of young farmers – Community Cooperative Farms – in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  At a table in the sun, a butcher who grew up in the area and trained at Fleischer’s in Kingston, cleaved a side of pig into the same cuts and products described a hundred years ago, from leaf lard to ham for the roast.

There are other natural rhythms, however, that are harder to return to, even as our celebrations recall them.  The candles that proliferate in December holidays once lit a darkness that otherwise settled in at sundown and sent folks to an early bed.  After describing the human strategy of expending great energy to secure food for the winter, the biologist Bernd Heinrich goes on to describe how at some point in the season this ceases to make sense, and a tendency for “semi-hibernation” – sleeping long hours, eating less food – comes into play, or would, at least, if we did not have electricity and caffeine extending our nights, while obligations crowd our days.

Ruth Tinker, reflecting back on a life that spanned a time before electricity was commonplace, right through to our modern era, offers an ode to darkness: “People who live in artificial lighting with their myriads of electric bulbs and lights have never fully experienced the night time, the mystery of the dark, the twilight hour and the unknown blackness…the night has been crowded out as have so many other lovely experiences of the past.”

So as the days reach their shortest point, as creatures find ways to conserve their energies, and as traditions of food, family and ritual abound, it is perhaps a good time to think about both darkness and light, and the many rhythms that shape our lives.