Winter is Coming

Fall has finally arrived.  It’s November, well past the time of year when we normally see freezing temperatures.  This year was unusually warm, a phrase that is beginning to lose its meaning since most years now are usually warm.  The leaves on the trees are finally turning color.  The nights are going to be freezing this week.  I look over the garden and see a few peppers I missed and remind myself to pick them before nightfall.  I collected masses of dill that reseeded itself from spring plantings.  I’ve learned that if I freeze the dill in tomato sauce I canned this summer the flavor in soup is the same as if it’s been picked fresh.  Good to know these things if you like the taste of fresh dill in winter soup.  I look over the garden and see bunches of herbs I need to pick before the frost or they will be lost to the freeze.  I worry about wasting them, and then I smile, remembering that the plants will give me another crop next year.  I’m still getting used to this experience of bounty from the perennials in the garden.  I’m still conditioned to think of food and herbs as things I purchase from the store, not wanting to waste money by allowing them to go bad.  Store bought food is so easily wasted.  Gardens are more generous!

Most of my life I’ve been a person who worried about waste; don’t waste electricity, don’t waste your food, “There are starving children in China”.  I wonder what was in the news in the 60’s when my mother used this phrase to make us feel guilty for not eating all the food on our plates.  Were there stories of people starving in China?  What happened, I wonder, to all the starving children?  I remember the oil embargo of the 70’s and the impetus not to waste energy.  I was old enough to understand about the lines at the gas stations, but ignorant of a thing called “peak oil”.  I remember the school placing plastic cards around light switches reminding us to turn off lights and conserve energy.  I understood about turning down thermostats and wearing a sweater.  Perhaps growing up in Minnesota we understood wintertime better than people living farther south.  To this day I still hear my mother’s voice complaining if a door is held open too long, worried that I’m ‘letting out the heat’.  I remember my father taking the screens off the windows and putting on storm windows.

My grandmother told me stories of living through the Great Depression reminding me not to take resources for granted because there might come a time when we need them.  She never wasted a thing.  That was her nature.  I’ve been conditioned by the times I’ve lived to think about energy, but mainly the cost of it more than the supply of it.  I remember the taking of our embassy personnel in Iran.   It was my first inkling that the Middle East would impact life in America for decades to come.  Ronald Regan took office and told us “Today is a new day”, and somehow people believed him.  The 80’s led to the 90’s consumption binge as if there was no need to worry about tomorrow. Credit was cheap.  We forgot about the embargo.  We forgot about saving money and living frugal.  We seemed to forget that bills always come due eventually.

Today it seems we have another Republican led effort to ignore the limits and pretend our actions won’t have consequences.  “Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.”  “Coal jobs are coming back.”  “There is plenty of oil for us to pump when the arctic ice melts!”  The cognitive dissonance this requires is profound.  If the arctic ice is melting how can we not be concerned about climate change?  As the storms, floods, and wildfires raged this year I wondered if a tipping point has been passed, if the rate of climate change is accelerating, if the dark time of climate chaos and weather disasters is upon us.  Winter is coming.  The time when food becomes scarce, when the softness of nature retreats into submission, and storms rage with callous fury.  It’s a time when we don’t know who or what will be left when spring arrives.

My ancestors are Scandinavian.  I often think their fears of winter starvation still reside in my DNA.  Those who lived in the north understood the necessity of putting up food and firewood enough to last through the winter. Winter was the time of harsh choices; when they were forced to choose the strong over the weak.   Scandinavians are often known for their stoicism.  My grandmother would fit that category, yet she had a heart big enough to love all of us as if each of us was her most cherished.  She never complained about the past, yet I knew she suffered many things.  She lived through hard times during the Great Depression, and yet still maintained the inner fortitude to keep living even when life was as hard.

Will my future be different?  I hear in people’s voices their fears of what might come, not knowing the horrors only imagining their likelihood.  I want to offer hope, but how?  How can I explain what I learned from my grandmother; that life is worth living even in the worst of times.  Family and God were all that she had but they were worth everything to her.  She had unshakable faith in the goodness of this world.  Her heart was big enough to endure pain and suffering and live through it…for us.  We were her future.  I wonder whether people truly realize how much our addiction to oil, to cars, to conveniences is going to affect our children and grandchildren’s future?

Yes, winter is coming.  But before it arrives I pause and give thanks for what I’ve received this year.  Fall gives us colors, a wild celebration of summer’s growth.  The last of this year’s crops are picked and stored away.  The wood piled high and dry under the eaves of the barn; enough to make many a warm cozy fire when the snow lays deep.  I hear the call of the wild geese passing overhead and remember how they sounded in my childhood, high in the sky, the V shape they flew as they winged their way south for the winter.  Here in Indiana they stay all year, winter and summer, never flying north.  Change has come, and more is coming.  It’s time to pick those herbs and finish my chores.  There will be plenty of time later to sit by a fire and ponder our future.

9 Replies to “Winter is Coming”

  1. Similar story here with the weather, Jody. Crisp and cold enough for coats in the morning, at last, but late in the year. And it’s been a spectacular green-gold autumn.

    1. I love the fall and spring, that sliver of transition time when nature seems to speak so eloquently.

  2. You have such a beautiful relationship with your garden, Jody.
    My Filipino grandfather was a sporadic but excellent gardener as well, and my mother often tells stories of the Victory gardens of her youth in upstate New York. Thinking about how our grandparents lived is a less scary way to envision lower energy use than some of the more dystopian visions of the future.

    1. Michelle,
      I couldn’t agree more. Growing a kitchen garden is a way to provide an essential need (food) that also brings health benefits both physical and emotional. Growing food also provides something we can trade or share. History is full of such stories of Victory gardens. Our ability to grow food and perhaps a flock of chickens even in urban environments has kept us alive through many difficult times.
      Long before humanity adopted large-scale agriculture we were gardeners. Throughout history exploitation of crop land and irrigation has been responsible for the collapse of civilizations dependent on the crops to maintain their large urban populations. The fall of civilizations has been attributed to the depletion of soil organic matter and the accumulation of salts. One report “Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years” was written by W.C. Lowdermilk in 1953. Lowdermilk was head of the USDA and spent his life studying the effects of soil depletion and erosion. Another very interesting book “Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan” By: F. H. King describes how Asian farmers (who were really market gardeners) were able to farm for 4,000 years on the same ground because they constantly returned organics back to the soil. I am often saddened to think of how much China has lost when their farmers left the land and moved to the urban areas to work in factories. In the US the last generation of people who lived as full time farmers is almost gone, most in their 90’s now. When they are gone their knowledge is gone too.

      I’m thankful that permaculture methods are retaining some of this knowledge as well as finding new ways to make better use of rainwater, preserve soil, maintain forests, and clean lakes. This is the only way the world will maintain fresh drinking water supplies and food production.

      People who don’t garden, who have never farmed or ranched, don’t understand the appeal of this lifestyle. They argue that subsistence living is backbreaking, grueling, horrible work. There’s no denying it’s sweaty, hard, challenging, and sometimes heart breaking (like when cattle suddenly die). But there is no work I’ve ever done in my life that has also brought more reward or a sense of satisfaction. I think this is why people would say “Hard work has its own reward.” Unless someone actually works hard at something they will never understand what this means.

    1. For sure! What was that Murphy said “What can go wrong, will go wrong.”
      As I watch the current upward trajectory of the US stock market and listen to the pundits talk about how everything is fine, no end in sight to it’s upward movement, I wonder when humanity will get over the irrational euphoria that causes such bubbles. Isn’t it a shame that so much of the world of investment is controlled by the irrational behavior of compulsive gamblers!

      Everyone knows there’s no such thing as perpetual energy machines or infinite growth. When we enter the upward accelerating part of the ‘hockey stick’ shaped curve of exponential growth we can expect things to start falling apart! Yet investors seem to think it’s musical chairs and they will be the one person that still manages to find a chair when the music stops.

  3. Hi Jody,
    Though I´m in (North) Germany, your essay describes a lot of my own experiences. The weather here has been similar, and last night was the first (mild) frost this season. I was even wondering yesterday if I should get the last (not quite red yet but getting there) peppers in and decided to risk it – I´m pleased to say they survived thanks to being close enough to the south-facing wall of the house.
    I can remember the 70´s oil embargo – there were car-free Sundays here (not voluntarily, but enforced by police) to save petrol, and all your memories about keeping the doors shut and switching the lights off when not needed are mine as well. We were told about the starving children in Africa – unfortunately that was and still is true.
    My granny was born in Schlesien (now southern Poland) and came as refugee to the area in Germany where I now live. Having lost her husband in World War 2, she had to bring up four children (my mother among them) on her own, which can´t have been easy in post-war Germany. So she could tell a thing or two about scarcity, and like your granny she would never waste a thing, she would even cut off the mold and eat the rest of the bread instead of throwing it on the compost (yes, she was a gardener, too).
    I´m guessing that many people of their generation had that kind of attitude because they knew what hard work and hardship means and were therefore grateful for all comforts they could get and content with much less than what goes for a normal lifestyle today – and I can´t shake the feeling that we and all that come after us will need to learn that kind of thinking again.
    Frank from Germany

    1. Hello Frank From Germany,
      Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure there are many of our generation that have had similar experiences. I wonder if there isn’t something about scarcity and hardship that strips away the non-essential parts of us leaving what is necessary and real and making us thankful to have survived.

      Once living in Phoenix, AZ I saw a couple that looked to be in their 60’s out on the roof of a house putting on new shingles. The temperature was over 110 and not a cloud in the sky. Like many natives of Arizona their skin was browned by the sun and they had not an ounce of extra fat, tendons visible on arms and legs. I thought about all the soft bodied light skinned folks like me rushing to get back inside to air conditioned comfort, cursing the heat.

      People living in the modern developed world have gotten accustomed to luxuries in our life compared to our grandparents. And even when things have been tough, by comparison they have probably been fairly easy. It’s likely to be different in the future, but it’s good we remember and admire the fortitude of our grandparents. It gives us more strength I think.

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