The idea of ‘hibernation’ is not an uncommon one to hear in the post-holiday time when everyone feels a bit spent (in more ways than one) and in need of a good wintery rest. And it certainly is a comfortable sort of idea; imagining a roly poly mammal who has eaten a bit extra now cozying down for a couple months of a deep sleep, ready to wake in the spring and start over. For some at this time of year it feels magical and even a little aspirational that a sleep could be so deep and presumably restful. It’s not surprising to see and hear so many wistful references to hibernation at this season, in our society of chronic over-tiredness and rush-rush from one thing to the next.
While there is value in considering the idea of a human version of hibernating, I wonder if we’re not better suited, in our relatively northern climate to consider vernalization instead. By definition vernalization is:
"the exposure(artificial or otherwise) of plants (or seeds) to low temperatures in order to stimulate flowering or to enhance seed production."
That is to say, like many wild flowering plants or a winter wheat or rye seed that is planted in the fall, it will produce some lovely ground cover with grassy leaves and then head into the winter for what seems like a certain death. Yet, come spring, as long as the ice hasn’t been too cruel, they will burst forth with fresh growth and be the first crop to produce a yield come late summer. They are the go-getters of field crop production and are often an organic farmer’s dream, combining the beauty of great cover crop and a low maintenance, low input early-season harvest.
If planted directly, without the vernalization in the spring, there will be some growth, some leaves, but no slender stems and most certainly no seed production. Without that winter rest, the plant produces none of its beauty, does not fulfill its purpose, does not flower or produce anything enduring.
Hibernation is a sleep and wake. Necessary, yes, but little is different before the rest to after. With vernalization, the act of resting is the mechanism that allows and even forces the flowering to follow. Without the vernalization, we’re merely a spent seed with nothing new to offer. Rather than just a rest for rests sake, perhaps we should rest, recognizing that it not just feels good, but is physically necessary in order to flower the following spring. And not just flower, but produce a bounteous replica of all the good it started with.
Farmers have been attempting human vernalization since the beginning of agriculture when for most, winter is a season of planning, perusing seed catalogues and pondering equipment purchases. It’s a season of financial analysis, fiscal considerations, invoice gathering and paperwork wrangling. Farmers do not spend the winter merely catching up on the hundreds of hours of Netflix they missed during the growing seasons (although they may do some of that). A good farmer is using these cold days for reflection, analysis, adjustment and preparation for a fresh start. So while they could simply rest, sleep longer and then wake up ready to repeat the following seasons, most farmers are taking the time to adjust and adapt for a more productive or sustainable growing period to come.
In order to produce and be the selves that we were meant to be, we must slow our roll and find moments of quiet in this darker season. As the wind blows hard against the windows, rather than lamenting what feels like house arrest against the weather, what if we instead hunkered down for an earlier bedtime, but also some moments to consider what our own personal flowering looks like. What does reaching our potential mean to us this year and how will we get there? Setting resolutions, goals and intentions is lovely, but it’s not vernalization until we aim them at our larger purpose.
The beauty of vernalization is that it repeats. But only if given the chance to rest.