Stray Kernels – The (hidden) growing season

Posted: January 17, 2019

I’ve been discouraged by the unrelenting dull chill of winter. In these dark months, it seems like day after sunless day is raw and barren. The trees are gray and stiff. Shriveled brown stems lie limply in pots and flowerbeds that danced with color a few months ago.

Fields that were filled with waving green corn are lifeless expanses of muddy stalks which may or may not be brightened by a blanket of snow. Shed doors which stood open in the spring and summer warmth and activity are shut tight against the cold wind. Nothing moves, save either that which is pushed by the wind or bundled tightly against it. Nothing is growing.

Except, as a friend recently reminded me, so many things are growing, or at least preparing for the next season of growth. We just can’t see it.

I had to think about that for awhile. Gazing out the window at snow flurries, bare fields, and gray sky, all I could think is “Everything is either dead or hibernating!”

Then I remembered the Great-horned owls. Maybe you heard them hooting in November and December. Then, they were setting up their territories and breeding. In the bitter depths of a Midwestern January, they are nesting.

I thought of cocoons. Many moths, like the amazing Polyphemus moth we once found on a bush next to our front door, can overwinter as pupae in cocoons attached to certain species of trees. Some butterflies, like the black swallowtail, may also spend the winter as a chrysalis, or pupal stage.

I remembered that several species of fruit trees, including apple and cherry, actually require a period of cold weather dormancy in order to flower and set fruit in the spring.

Finally, I thought of the ladybug my 5-year-old and I found on a snowy day earlier this winter. It was tumbling across the drifts in the wind along with dead oak leaves when I scooped it up. “Look, Naya!” I exclaimed. “Let’s take it into the house and see what happens when it warms up.” She peered into my mittened hands. “It’s dead, Mommy. Nothing will happen.” Nevertheless, we took it indoors and dropped the frozen beetle into a clear plastic container. Twenty-five minutes later, after cookies and hot cocoa, we remembered to check it. “It’s gone! Wait…” Our lifeless ladybug was now on the outside of the container, crawling around the edge.

All of this reminds me that these dark, depressing days aren’t as dismal as they sometimes seem. Indeed, they are necessary for the coming season of growth that we will be able to see.

The tulip and daffodil bulbs need cold in order to burst out of the ground this spring. The winter wheat fields and apple trees need to be chilled into dormancy before resuming growth when the weather warms.

Maybe we need the winter’s rest, too, so when the sun and warmth return, we’re ready to bloom with new possibilities.