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
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.
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
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
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
"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.
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
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: http://thebutcherandthebaker.blogspot.com/.
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.
"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.
by Anna Duhon
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
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
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.