We Like Field Mice in January: Returning to a Healthy Seasonal Rhythm

If you watch a meadow for a year, at least in places with our temperate climate, there are two down-times: When it's too cold, and when it's too hot. Those are vital down-times that we use to prepare and rest up for the up-times of spring and autumn.

Spring is, of course, vibrantly busy with new growth. Everything seems alive; everything is green, or flowered or bustling! It's like a great shout! for the sun and the great moving sky! Summer begins with the busy growth of berries, and the setting of seeds. Mammals, insects, birds and fish all rejoice in the excitement, fill their bellies with plants and each other, raise their babies, and build their homes and communities. But by the end of summer, the grasses have bent under the scorching sun; many of the animals shelter under them from the overbearing heat. Seeds dry and cure in the hot, persistent drought. Everything waits. Even the wind. It's just way too hot. What a huge relief when autumn comes to the meadow! The wind picks up, leaves and nuts and seeds fall to the ground and everybody gets busy packing in for winter; lining burrows and fattening up. Leaves of evergreens that folded up to protect themselves in the summer heat are now open again, washing and renewing themselves in the autumn rain. The rain and wind goes on for so long that by winter, grasses have died back, their old stalks brown and limp under the flood or snow. Rodents and insects still live, making and tending their pathways under the flattened grass of the meadow, and hungry prey birds sit still, hoping to catch one out of its shelter. Hungry. Everything is hungry. Trees and shrubs around the edges of the meadow stand naked without their leaves, just bending in the wind, cracking as their bodies swell with ice, and waiting. For spring. 

When my kids were young, our life was like the meadow. We, like field mice under grasses, nested in our house, in winter. We traipsed out in the meadow, sure, hungry like those field mice for a little adventure, but then we left our wet clothes at the door, and cocooned. Inside, we built cardboard box forts, did drawing and crafts by the fire, baked and sang and nestled in blankets with books. They call this hygge, now. Somehow in the post-Christmas lull, and without the demands of school and work (I was an intentionally stay-at-home-mom and unschooling my kids all year), we had freedom to just be. But it wasn't a pointless existence. In that quiet winter, like grasses, we were putting our roots down, deep, and by early spring we were ready to thrive.

Spring is when the whole world wakes up. And HOLY we partied!!! Everybody, like cherry blossoms, is out celebrating right through spring and into early summer. Everything has exclamation marks!!! For kids there are field-trips aplenty. There are festivals and conferences. Everybody is dancing their life out in the sunshine and flaunting the choices we made. This is when we were proudest to live our chosen lives.

As summer dragged on, though, the heat became oppressive, and we hid indoors, or in the cool shelter of our beloved forest. Drought meant even our well was close to dry, and we had to be careful about how much we used. No sprinklers; no water balloons. It was even too hot to go to the beach during the day, so we went there in the dark evenings, singing at campfires by the ocean with friends, watching the sun set again and again on the season of growth, as the grasses dried and we waited, again. We prepared our bodies for the autumn.

And there it was. Just like leaves fell in the meadow, summer friends went off to school, and we, like field mice, made our burrows under the grass. We prepared for winter by going over our goals, enrolling kids in programs, taking stock of our finances and plans for the coming year, and busying ourselves with all the considerations of raising children. My mother used to buy me a new outfit along with my school supplies, each year, and it felt SO GOOD. As an unschooling parent, how could I resist the displays of just-so school supplies, happy little felt pen packs and blank books just waiting for the glorious productions of the year ahead?! My kids got them too! More exclamation marks, because the giddy anticipation of this time of year is just infectious!!! Field mice are running with abandon along their grass paths, shoving their burrows full of treats for the coming winter!!!

Winter, again. December is a great distraction of bright-lights and colourful wildness, but then it's over and, again, here we are in the January lull. My family spent a few of our kids' teen years in schools of various forms. We abandoned much of our winter downtime for the routine of classes and general graduation preparedness. But when covid hit in 2020, we took it as an opportunity to drop all that, and returned to unschooling. It's very different, now that my kids are almost grown, one graduated and the other with no intention of graduating; both working their way to careers. But because of the increasing uncertainty in the world, we decided to grow our own food. Or at least, as much as we can, given the small bit of land that we rent. 

In the past year and a half we have begun keeping chickens for eggs, meat, and garden-maintenance (they eat bugs and till some of the soil), and we're growing about half the vegetables we consume each year (and none of the grain), through regenerative farming practices. It's certainly not full-fledged farming, but it has brought us closer to feeding ourselves, and also to the healthy seasonal rhythm we used to know, when the kids were young. Right now, in January, last year's veggie stalks are poking half-rotten from the melting snow. Seeds fallen last autumn are lying in wait--some in my seed box, and some in the ground. Chickens keep a low-key routine of scratching for bugs under the rotting leaves, and are beginning to discover (and eat) the first spring shoots. Spring is just around the corner and, like all the plants in the meadow, we've been putting down our roots for a strong spring start. Like field mice, we're watching for new shoots.

Regenerative farming (that is, growing food in harmony with the ecology of the land it's growing on) has brought us much closer to that easy seasonal flow we had when the kids were little. It's a satisfying way to live, in our climate: rooting in winter, blossoming in spring, resting in the hottest part of summer, and nesting in the fall. There's something to be said for living in tune with our bodies and the ecology of the world around us. 

And there's something deeply harmful about fighting it. In our urban culture, even our daily rhythms are governed more by the needs of the economy (whether personal or societal) than by our physiological needs. How many of us get up before dawn and trudge to work in the dark, dependent on a host of chemical and physical methods of preparing an un-rested and un-ready body for the work day? This lifestyle came close to eliminating my husband, before the pandemic saved him. How many kids do the same, for school? How many of us carry on our routines despite failing health, when the winters are too dark and cold; when the summers are beating the life out of us? We need to change.

I'm not saying we should be a solely agrarian society, but perhaps we can take the natural cycles of the year into consideration, in how we work, play, and parent our children. Some agrarian populations shift industry and school schedules to accommodate the needs of planting and harvesting. Maybe we could shift ours, similarly, or even determine some of the specific activities done at certain times of year to correspond with our natural energy levels and physiological needs. Maybe, like field mice, we can run in the pathways of our communities to spend this winter tidying, eating our stored grains, and watching excitedly for the sprouts of spring.


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