By Grant Higginbotham, Farm Fellow
Overwintering can be described as the process by which organisms wait out the winter season through various adaptive behaviors. Bears, among other mammals, enter a state of hibernation after consuming as much as they can in preparation for their deep sleep. Birds migrate from colder regions to warmer ones, knowing that food will become more scarce. Plants are miraculously able to slow down their biological functions and growth rate, effectively “freezing” in time and in the ground.
In farming, people often work together with plants that are able to overwinter, planting them in time for them to grow large enough before the winter season begins so that come spring, the plants may flower and fruit at the beginning of the season. At AMI, we experiment with several species of overwintering plants including garlic, beets, and various greens. Through a collaboration of humans and plants, we are able to aid in each other's well-being in the often difficult winter season.
As modern humans, we often lack the understanding of how difficult and yet radically transformative winter is to the natural world. Most of us live in urban environments, divorced from seasonality and comforted by artificial heat. While the cold certainly seeps into facets of our lives, we can often remain relatively unchanged by this harsh turning of the wheel. We can go to the grocery store and purchase produce grown hundreds of miles away. We can crank up the heating systems in our homes - if we’re lucky enough to have them.
Coming to AMI from southern Louisiana, I have little experience with true winter, but being a part of the process of preparing the farm and this community for the Appalachian winter has taught me the importance of its impact. Winter-enduring cultures from around the world and throughout time have mythologized winter as a deep, dark period of turning inward, a gestation of light and life. There is a reason agriculture and harvest festivals play such an important role in the mythmaking and cultural practices of humans - to be able to steward the earth and to grow a bounty of food for yourself and your community in the autumn, spring, and sometimes summer months breeds the seasonal opportunity for gratitude, being with loved ones, and the reflective honoring of death. The earth, after its bountiful push of autumn, literally transforms before our eyes - trees cascade in color and drop their leaves, taking on a deathly appearance for the winter and we celebrate this transition of life. We witness the disappearance and migration of animals as they intuit what their own ancestors have done for millennia and vanish into the dark of winter.
Those of us who live in cold, rural places still take part in our own human ways of overwintering. At AMI, we have chopped wood, we have stored our hearty autumn vegetables in our root cellar, we have pickled and canned a wealth of plant food, and we have filled our freezer with the chickens we have painstakingly raised and butchered ourselves. But most profoundly, we have seen our once lush garden beds transform into a humble and steady field of plants, ready to take on the winter. We have slowed down, taken stock of what we have accomplished, and now we prepare for the long night.
I consider myself lucky to be able to go home to Louisiana where it will be warm, at least much warmer than here in the coming months. While I won’t be overwintering in the most literal sense, I am leaving this place I have made my home for the last six months, this place where I have transformed so much. I will be entering into a hibernation of my own, but one of modern convenience - I will go back to the warm comfort of my home, I will go back to buying produce at the store and once in a while dining out, and I will spend the next two months relaxing as much as I can, between also working as much as I can. This is not exactly a hibernation by normal standards, but a slowing and hunkering down of myself.
In the new year, I will return to Virginia and experience living in a true winter for the first time. I will revive the knowledge and skills that I have acquired here and put them to use. We will spend the first months of our return stewarding ourselves and the lands that we’ll be on in our Community Action Year for a rising up, out of the winter, and back into a period of growing, providing, and nurturing.
It will be hard to leave this beautiful, awe-inspiring mountain and the long exposure to the elements that we have acquired here, but I remind myself that the turning of the wheel is one of the greatest experiences we can have in this life. To see how things change, how things must change, and how resilient and collaborative we as players of the natural world must be in order to make the most out of this life. Winter is a hard time for so many and as such, we should honor it and take as much wisdom as we can from it. So, like the seedlings that we’ll be sowing into the ground in this very last week of ours, I will try and center and quiet myself in the warmth of the earth and carry it with me till the springtime.