Writer and IU Bloomington professor emeritus Scott Russell Sanders considers the wintering practices of Indiana wildlife and wonders what humans can learn from these natural examples of dormancy, hibernation, migration and retreat.
Homes in the Hard Months
On winter walks, bundled up against the cold, knowing I can return to a warm house and a well-stocked pantry, I often think about how other creatures sustain their lives through these hard months. Many of those with wings migrate south to find warmth and food. With luck, the monarch butterflies that began life as miniscule eggs on milkweed in our southern Indiana yard last summer will reach a forested mountainside refuge in Mexico, where they will join with half a million other monarchs to drape the trees in black and gold. Sandhill and whooping cranes leave Indiana wetlands for the Gulf coast, while songbirds and warblers fly to forests and grasslands as far away as the Amazon. Several species of bats—including the one named for our state, the Indiana bat—leave our limestone cave country to hibernate in caves farther south.
But what about the animals that don’t migrate? How do they manage in these frozen, food-scarce months? Some hibernate, like groundhogs and chipmunks, lowering their heart rate, metabolic rate, and body temperature, living off fat accumulated when food was plentiful. Snakes hibernate in burrows, basements, stumps, stacks of firewood, and the dens of other animals. In the coldest regions, skunks also hibernate, but here in the Indiana hill country they do so only temporarily, rousing in warmer spells to go foraging for insects, worms, toads, and almost anything else edible, and then retreating to their den for another snooze. This on-and-off sluggishness is known to biologists as torpor—a pattern familiar to parents of teenagers.
Most native bees and wasps hibernate in the soil, in nests made by their mothers, in tree cavities, or under mulch piles and fallen leaves (a good excuse not to rake your yard too thoroughly). Honeybees survive the cold, blossomless months by clustering in their hives around the queen bee, shivering to generate warmth, and feeding on stored honey. Some butterflies overwinter as eggs laid on twigs and leaves, some as caterpillars sheltering in the leaf litter surrounding their host plants, some as chrysalises, and a few species, such as the handsome Mourning Cloak, as adults, hidden in tree crevices or woodpiles; in all of these stages, they avoid freezing by pumping a natural antifreeze into their body fluids.
Squirrels curl up in their leafy nests, high in the bare branches, or in the cavities of trees, dozing much of the time, venturing out now and again to retrieve acorns and other nuts they buried during the summer. Raccoons sleep in the hardest weather, but the rest of the time they go about their sly ways, snug in fur coats, alert for any chance of a meal. Beavers hunker down in their lodges, feeding on branches they stored under the ice. Frogs and turtles burrow into the mud of ponds, lakes, and rivers. A few species of fish, such as carp, also burrow into the mud, but most fish idle near the bottom, slowing their bodily processes to conserve energy.
On my winter walks I am also mindful of how my own species, lacking those clever adaptations, makes it through the hard months. We cannot hibernate, cannot grow thicker fur or denser feathers, cannot fashion nests out of leaves or burrow underground. Some of us migrate from northern states to winter in Florida, Arizona, and other warmer destinations. But most of us stay put in our year-round homes, tethered by jobs, children in school, elders to care for, or lack of funds. So we put on another layer of clothes and turn up the thermostat. Instead of living off accumulated fat, we keep eating, foraging in grocery stores, restaurants, and takeout places.
Alas, a dismaying number of our fellow humans cannot afford the cost of food and warm clothing, let alone the rent or mortgage notes in our high-priced housing markets. Within a ten-minute walk of where I am writing these lines on an icy January day, homeless people recently filled a park with tents. Last month, a man sleeping in one of those tents died from the cold. So local officials no longer allow overnight camping; instead, the tent-dwellers are transported or directed to overnight shelters provided by churches, nonprofits, and local agencies. No one imagines that shelters are a solution to poverty; they are a temporary stay against misery. Our neighbors who are currently experiencing homelessness need permanent, affordable housing if they are to live securely, and with the dignity due to all human beings, in winter and in all seasons of the year.
Born in Tennessee and reared in Ohio, Scott Russell Sanders studied at Brown University and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. In 1971 he joined the faculty of Indiana University, where he taught until 2009, retiring as Distinguished Professor of English. Among his twenty books are novels, collections of stories and works of personal nonfiction. His latest book is The Way of Imagination (2020), which considers how imagination, linked to compassion, can help us solve the urgent ecological and social challenges we face. Sanders has won the AWP Creative Nonfiction Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, the Lannan Literary Award, the Indiana Humanities Award and the Mark Twain Award. His writing has been supported by the Lilly Endowment, the Indiana Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. In his writing, he is concerned with our place in nature, the practice of community, the relationship between culture and geography and the search for a spiritual path. He and his wife, Ruth, a biochemist, have reared two children in their hometown of Bloomington in the hardwood hill country of Indiana’s White River Valley.
Visit his website: ScottRussellSanders.com.
Amid this fast-paced, overwhelming year, we invite you to slow down, settle in and embrace the season with the help of our Winter Slow Moments Campaign. Along with commissioning a new Slow Moments film featuring Cataract Falls, we’ve invited several Indiana writers to explore themes of winter—such as stillness, dormancy, darkness and brightness—through original prose and poetry. From a commentary on the wintering practices of Indiana wildlife, to an exploration of the season’s simultaneous status as dark and bright, to a meditation on the varied spiritual traditions that embrace stillness, these original works urge us to forge connections between nature, literature and our own human practices.