dear old: everyone into the burrow

frozen shut 2DEAR OLD friend (though not as old as I am),

Ouch, Katrina; little wonder that you are craving getting all tucked in, and staying put. Me too, though I have no acute cause like yours to offer in explanation—no recent hip replacement (with a second surgery imminent) to point the finger at. I can only explain the urgent instinct to hunker like this:

I am an animal.

The longer I live in Nowheresville, with its intimate window on the natural world, the better I grasp my kindredness with other local species. Yes, I boast a bigger brain; the ability to walk upright; opposable thumbs—though I suppose I’m not alone in that last one, exactly, since the local opossum has them, albeit on its hind feet.

Apparently fur-lessness and the mechanism to sweat, since cooling down efficiently can boost endurance, are other evolutionary advancements on the human side of the tally. Right now, though, some fur sounds welcome, and getting overheated nearly inconceivable. Brrrrrr.

freezer stashI’m getting in touch with my animal-ness, and no time of year is it more pronounced than at the seasonal cusps, exaggerated in response to the most extreme pull of natural forces. Like everyone in this habitat, I’m behaving as daylength, temperature, and availability of resources dictate by dwindling, going about seasonally appropriate business to insure food, shelter, and safety—or else.

Which animal I’m most like, I am not certain—perhaps it’s some interspecific hybrid of bird, frog, mammal? Once inclined to constant anthropomorphizing, in my rural years I’ve become more inclined toward seeing the animal in me. (Is that sense of identification called zoomorphism, or what? Who knows.)

I can’t stop repeating what I know I have quoted before, Katrina, human-behavior wisdom gleaned in a course on bird behavior, from the ornithologist Dr. Kevin McGowan:

“Thinking of animals like people is misleading and unhelpful, and offers no assistance in understanding animal behavior. Thinking of people as animals with the same survival goals can provide profound insights into what we do.”

And so, like many birds, I am diurnal, punching the mirror-image time clock from the nocturnal mice in my basement and walls lately who scuttle around as their shift starts at 4 PM or so, with the arriving darkness, and again when settling back into their nests as it ends around 4 AM. Each afternoon around 4 I’m about done for the day this time of year; at 4-something in the morning, I stir toward starting another.

I am resident, like a woodpecker or turkey, not migrant like brilliant forest-breeding rose-breasted grosbeaks or tanagers or indigo buntings who visit in the milder months. I never wander far from where I nest.

acorns 2010 2I do not scatter-hoard my store of food for the duration—placing the equivalent of an acorn here and another there and another somewhere else, the way a squirrel does, or a tufted titmouse or blue jay with their sunflower seeds tucked under bits of bark around the place. I’ve spent the fall larder-hoarding instead, like the mice or the older Eastern chipmunks, stashing all my provisions in one central pantry: back and forth, back and forth, load after load. (Some research on hoarding styles says young chipmunks behave more like squirrels.)

Exciting: Across the road, a bobcat lately allows just the occasional glimpse. The handsome feline is by nature solitary—I am no pack animal, either, as you well know. He is a sometime-hoarder, if a deer is scored in winter. Such a cache lasts weeks, a lucky thing when snow is deep and hunting rodents or rabbits challenging.

And then, we diverge: Nobody seems to reciprocate the delight I get from their presence, appearing to be either indifferent or even disturbed by mine. I find my outdoor neighbors endlessly fascinating, and often entertaining, especially two acrobatic black-morph individuals of the species we call Eastern gray squirrel who have made the garden home the last year. Perhaps they don’t have the “Field Guide to Eastern Humans” to read up on all my most fascinating aspects, they way I have the ones on all of them.

tadpole with legs‘NOW WHAT?” you ask in your latest letter. Here, there is still the last yard cleanup to complete; more apples to be processed into sauce or dried; the water gardens to winterize. And then there is surrender to a sober rhythm; then we are resting, but not completely down for the count. I liked how you put it:

“Lying fallow is different from doing nothing.”

Not just some abandoned or neglected field, a fallow one is a deliberate stage in a scheme of successful crop rotation, perhaps sown with cover crop awhile so that it may be more bountiful at another time. It may look like nothing is happening, but good soil health is being intentionally cultivated. What’s going on here, you ask? Everything, if all unseen.

We are not alone in our hunkering instinct, nor is there total stillness even on the quietest days. I think of the female black bear, who though still in hibernation just after the New Year will bear her young. Until then she is gestating, and maybe you and I—coming out of our writing ruts, finally, I hope—are forming something, too.

I think of the tadpoles in my two garden ponds, waiting for their chance to move on up. Apparently the green frog species will wait longer than a year if conditions so require—holding on, half-baked, even through a hard winter, before letting go of their heavy, unneeded but familiar tails. Metamorphosis is no instant karma, baby. (And we all shine on.)

I think of the mated female bumblebees–the only members of last season’s colonies who even survive winter. Bumblebees, like annual garden plants, do everything by the end of summer, and then die out. All the males and workers and even the founding queen of the colony: gone.

At our life stage we’re not fecund like they are, or like those mama bears, but we are full in our own ways, no? (Please say yes.)

In March, weather willing, I’ll see those gravid female bees hovering low among the earliest wildflowers, seeking nectar for themselves and pollen for their nests. It is only then, not in fall, that the queen-to-be provisions a nest. Unlike honeybees, who rely on honey inside the hive to feed all winter, bumblebees have no need to store resources because they’re hibernating.


“I’m hungry all the time,” I told a doctor friend last winter when the deep-freeze descended, as if it were a symptom of something amiss. “I can’t stop eating.”

“Have you watched the squirrels and birds at your feeders lately?” he said, rhetorically, aware that I do so nonstop.

YES, IT’S THE END of November and we’re on “pause,” as is my Roku player intermittently. I’ll hit that handy button and go fetch another stack of tamari-seaweed rice-snap crackers, an equal number of tiny squares of goat cheddar, and of quartered bread-and-butter pickle chips—how’s that for an improv-canapé?—then scurry back to the hibernaculum and unpause the video stream.

from AmazonRemember last year when I was re-watching HBO’s “In Treatment,” suggesting that Gabriel Byrne might be the antidote to winter? I nudged you to try it, and also to try my miracle winter sloth-defying tool: the rebounder, or mini-trampoline. And so to pass that last span of dark, cold months we both bounced, in our respective Zip codes, and watched, and bounced some more. (I gave my original Urban Rebounder to my sister recently, who loves it, and got a slightly fancier JumpSport, with adjustable tension and a little more spring.)

I don’t suppose you are bouncing now, on those bionic hips-in-progress, but here’s a suggestion that would work even from the loveseat:

I’m hosting a Nicola Walker film festival, and highly recommend you do, too. (Sorry, my own is currently sold out; all one ticket is already taken for every showing.)

Because of her role in “MI-5,” for years I referred to Walker by the name of her character, Ruth. You’ve probably seen her lately in “Last Tango in Halifax,” and now there is what might be the best performance of all: in the British series “River,” just released via Netflix here. She stars opposite Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard. Remember him as the alpha-male mathematician in “Good Will Hunting”? She is a detective in this one, as she has been many times before, notably opposite Robson Green in “Touching Evil,” intensely gruesome but so well-done. Look her up; her list could keep you going on many long nights, though some things seem to have vanished from U.S. distribution, or aren’t here yet.

Thank you, my slow-moving friend, for the apple-cake recipe. When you are done with that specific binge of yours, a suggestion: I’m heading into one of something similarly unfancy and even rustic: pumpkin “custards” that are really just crustless pumpkin pies, baked in ramekins in a bain marie. (The recipe.)

I see that Paris-based genius David Lebovitz has a new potential topping for things pumpkin-pie-like: a cloud of homemade toasted marshmallow. Do we dare, or is even homemade marshmallow fluff for children only, and not us? I say we add the ingredients to the larder, if just for use a special day or two in the months ahead.


Your friend, Older

P.S.–I know this letter wasn’t really about our usual subject, aging. But even that insistent metronome is overshadowed at the moment by more urgent-seeming matters of hungry, cold and tired. XO.

a series of letters on aging: part 5

THIS IS MY FIFTH in a series of letters between me and my friend, author Katrina Kenison, on the challenges (and joys!) of aging–though this one derailed a bit into more pressing matters, as I said in the P.S. She’s Old (just 56) and I’m Older (by about five years. Who knows where it’s going, but since the subject keeps coming up, and we’re both writers…well, you get the idea. Listen in. After reading this new letter, read her reply here (or work backwards to the letters that started the conversation starting at this link).


  1. Judith says:

    Margaret, I actually just finished watching “River,” and loved it. Walker and Skarsgard were perfect together. I am in burrowing mode, myself. Have a peaceful Thanksgiving.

  2. polly says:

    I am a bit older than you, torn on the living nowhere vs somewhere question. I have places in both, divide my year equally between both, and appreciate both. Circumstances (geezer care) have caused me to give up the nowhere for now, and I am longing for it. But the age factor is nagging at me. I peer ahead to my seventies and wonder if an old lady can – or should – live by herself, immersed in nature and peace and quiet? Well, I just may find out. Thanks for letting us share your correspondence.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for your note, Polly. I don’t have any forever answers, since circumstances can change as you allude to. I have neighbors in their 80s who shovel their own snow and stack their wood, and so I figure if I get lucky and take good care maybe I can keep doing so, too. :)

  3. Deborah Banks says:

    My current addiction is burrowing into the couch and reading the entire Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon. Each book of about 1000 pages is mesmerizing me. I’ve gotten through the first six books – just finished A Breath of Snow and Ashes – and am anxiously awaiting the next one, on request from my local library.

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