This week started off alarmingly chilly, as if Mother Nature was giving us a reminder: Winter is coming, friends. Finalize your preparations. Although astrological winter doesn't begin until the winter solstice on December 21, meteorological winter is fast approaching with the beginning of December, and if you follow Celtic traditions, as many of us in the north do, the dark half of the year was upon us with Samhain back at the beginning of November. All of this to say: the dark and cold are upon us.
Like many of our animal and other more-than-human friends in the far north, I often feel the call to cocoon right about now. To go inward. The flurry of activity that is putting gardens to bed and preparing for the holiday season is indeed exhausting, but it's more than that. Living in cold climates encourages one to align with nature, following instinctive cues rather than working against the environment around us.
Take the woolly caterpillar. I encountered this fuzzy little fellow, all curled up between the arabesques of an outdoor doormat, as I went out to fill our bird feeders for the umpteenth time this fall. He was doing exactly what my body and mind yearned for: curling up and slowing down.
Woolly caterpillars, also known as woolly bears, are the larvae form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella Tiger Moth. A common sight in our area, folklore maintains that the varying widths of the caterpillar’s bands predict the harshness of the coming winter. The wider the rusty-red band, the milder the winter; the more narrow, the more severe you can expect winter to be.
Wide or narrow, the woolly caterpillar's coat helps it survive winter. The fur is called setae, and while it looks fuzzy and warm, it isn't actually there to protect them from the cold weather. Instead, it helps them to freeze more controllably. You read that right. Freeze. Once settled in, the caterpillars hibernate, creating a natural antifreeze called glycerol. They freeze little by little, until everything but the interior of their cells are frozen. These interior cells are protected by the hemolymph. Woolly bears can survive to temperatures as low as -90˚F. (I’m shivering just contemplating that.)
When the weather warms above freezing, woolly caterpillars "defrost." They can repeat this freeze-and-thaw cycle many times over the winter. After wintering in its chosen spot*, the caterpillar awakens on a warm spring day and continues to feed. Soon it forms a cocoon and pupates. In about two weeks, the orange-yellow Isabella Tiger Moth emerges.
This ability to adapt, particularly to the cold in this case, is a lesson we humans could learn from. No, I'm not suggesting some elaborate form of cryogenic freezing for the winter. Rather, how can we honor our bodies and the season by slowing down and going inward? How can we embrace the dark and the cold instead of railing against it? There are a great many winter activities that one can choose to participate in, but let us not forget the value of the darkness, which beckons for us to quiet our minds and bodies. Reading…writing…meditation…simple contemplation of the great questions of life. Create a mood board or set intentions for the coming year. Daydream about the person you'd like to be or life you'd like to lead, and then think about how you could make that happen, even if it's just one tiny step.
There is no outrunning or outdoing this cold and dark season. If wildlife tried that it simply wouldn't survive. While we have a plethora of man-made ways to outlast the season, I would argue that it doesn't serve us. Let us heed the call to go inward and see what new growth bursts forth come spring.
*While I was delighted to discover this little friend in my doormat, it isn't the ideal spot to curl up and wait out winter. Woolly caterpillars generally search out a spot under bark, a rock, or a fallen log, so I tenderly relocated this one. While doing so I took note of the very wide rust-colored band. A girl can dream!
*Source of woolly caterpillar facts: ReconnectWithNature.Org https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/news-events/the-buzz/why-woolly-bear-caterpillars-do-not-freeze-death/