With fall right around the corner, change is in the air. This morning it’s a bit chilly, in the low 40s. The sky is cloudless, pale blue, and the chipmunks in my backyard are frantic, gathering acorns and hickory nuts at warp speed. Unlike the fox squirrels and red squirrels that also live in the backyard, chipmunks are hibernators. They go into short torpid states (their heartbeats slow to almost nothing, burning very little energy), for 8 to 10 days, then they wake up, eat, then go back to “sleep”, and repeat the cycle until spring, or until their food is gone. If there is a warm stretch in the winter, you might see a chipmunk scampering about, trying to restock its cache, but for the most part, once the first snowflake flutters to the ground, the chipmunks disappear.
Interestingly enough, the hummingbird feeders have been active as well. We only have ruby-throated hummingbirds that nest in Indiana, and they are fattening up, readying for their long journey south. Hummingbirds go into a torpid state every night, closing their fragile wings, barely breathing, too. I have never seen a hummingbird sleeping, but I’d like to.
Since I live in the Midwest, chipmunks are typically the only animal to offer me the opportunity to witness hibernation. There are no bears in Indiana. The fact that hummingbirds and chipmunks share a common state baffles me, comforts me in an odd way, and crystallizes the reality that we all, animal and human, have our commonalties.
So, hibernation has always fascinated me. A primal survival technique that some how bypassed human DNA. Winters in Indiana can be tough, depending on the year, and the idea of sleeping through them is appealing, especially the older I get. But I’m kind of glad I don’t hibernate.
I like the change of seasons. I like sitting by the fire reading a book, a pot of chili simmering on the stove. I like the silence of winter. I like watching the winter birds on the feeder, scads of cardinals sitting on limbs covered in hoarfrost, content on a supper of sunflower seeds, or juncos scampering on the ground happy for the millet I put out. Winter slows us all down, forces us to consider the silence. We don’t go into a “torpid” state, but I would argue that the heartbeat of time is different for humans in the winter than it is in spring or summer.
As a writer I always look forward to winter, it's my most productive time of the year.
Now that the first cold front has swept down from the Arctic, I am looking toward the coming days, planning my projects, setting my writing goals, checking my cache to make sure I have enough ideas to keep me busy until spring. I think do. But I’m always adding more, making sure I have enough ideas to sustain my creative self through the short days and long nights of winter. It is my part in the natural cycle of things.
I feel the urge to store ideas like chipmunks feel the urge to gather acorns, or hummingbirds feel need to double their weight in a short period time. It is almost an unconscious act, preparing for winter. Maybe it’s habit—or maybe it is something else, something hidden deep in the DNA that is as common and mysterious as the air we breath. Maybe it is nothing more than the primal drive to survive, our bond with the chipmunk and the hummingbird.
Sometimes, I think we forget how much we have in common with the creatures who surround our homes.