by Clint Calhoun
Something I often find myself doing is contemplating the seasons. Each season has a special component to it that I love. I enjoy the brisk warmth of spring and the emergence of the spring ephemerals. Spring is the season of awakening and regrowth. Summer is the season of vacation, but is also when nature is functioning at its peak; where food is being made, and young animals are exploring and learning all about the world around them under the watchful eyes of their parents. Fall is the season of preparation, as plants begin the process of storing up sugars in the form of starch for long-term energy use. Many animals are foraging heavily or putting away food for the leaner days to come, putting on fat stores and growing thicker fur. All of this leads up to winter: the season of rest.
For many, winter is anything but restful. In fact, some people feel like winter is stressful and depressing. The thing is I’m not talking about people. When we look at nature’s cycles, we can see how rest is a very important. Think about it!
Let’s look at plants for instance. Most flowering species of plants in the Southern Appalachians are deciduous, meaning that they lose their leaves during the fall. This process, while seemingly simple, is quite complex and is necessary for plants as they grow from year to year. Winter is the time where photosynthesis is slowed down considerably. Deciduous plants lose their leaves, partly as an adaptation to prevent being bent and broken by snow, particularly in northern latitudes. All of that surface area when exposed to snow and ice would certainly be bad for trees. When we look at the purpose of leaves, their primary function is photosynthesis, which means making sugar from carbon dioxide and water. The reason for making sugar is so the plant can feed itself throughout the year and carry out its life functions. No, the plants didn’t make those sugars for us as humans, although we certainly benefit as ecological consumers. Plants need those sugars to grow, flower, reproduce, and to get through the cold months of winter, when the days are shorter than the nights, temperatures are below the optimum range for photosynthesis, and there is no reason to be producing flowers. During this resting period of winter, plants are not necessarily asleep, but rather are metabolically slowed down. The starches made from the stored sugars are being used for root growth and bud growth until the longer days of spring and warmer temperatures signal plants to start growing again.
Animals on the other hand are forced to slow down and rest as well. Sure, you’ll see animals occasionally during winter, especially non-migrating bird species, squirrels, rabbits and deer, but even for them, winter is not a productive time, and they spend a significant amount of time hunkered down so as not to unnecessarily spend fat stores. Squirrels have the advantage of being able to cache food which they will nibble on periodically throughout the winter, but when the days are cold, rainy, or snowy, squirrels will curl up in a ball in their nest and sleep. Mother bears are giving birth to their babies during the winter months. While mama sleeps, she gives birth to one to three tiny little ones, who will spend the winter nursing and putting on weight in preparation for that moment when they come out of the den to see the world for the first time.
Snakes, lizards, frogs, and all of the other creeping things, crawl into cracks in rocks, holes in the ground, or anywhere they can find that has a constant temperature. There they sit, possibly surrounded by other similar species, waiting for warm weather. Many of the insects that we are familiar with during the warmer months have died or migrated south to finish out their life cycles, but not without laying their eggs or placing themselves into a protective cocoon so that they and their generations to come are preserved.
So you see, rest is important for all living things. Winter is the break that nature needs from all of the activity that it carried out during the other nine months of the year. Sometimes I think that perhaps we need to slow down ourselves. I think slowing down is necessary so that we don’t take for granted the things that should be important to us. Perhaps winter is for humans after all.
Until next time!
Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.