Winter Sleep Moon

In which there are beavers…

The first moon of the lunar year begins in the wee hours of 5 November. This is my Winter Sleep Moon. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which roughly uses Backwoods traditional names for lunations, calls the moon that is full in November the Beaver Moon.

The beaver lodge in a pond of their own creation near my old home.
The foreground bubbles are a beaver that did not appreciate the paparazzi.

Beavers are putting the finishing touches on their lodges in this time before ponds freeze and snows begin in earnest, and then they retreat to the warmth. Beavers don’t hibernate, though they do slow down. Nevertheless, they have to eat all winter. So in addition to packing as much food as possible into the living space, they also store food near the lodge entrance underwater. That way they can get a meal with minimal effort. Well, minimal effort when it comes to eating time. All the effort is expended in the summer and autumn. Beavers are planners, with running calculations almost as detailed as humans. 

However, in November they are slowing down. Maybe felling a few easy saplings, perhaps filling in a few more thin spots in the roof with plaster (mud) and lathe (twigs and large leaves). Nothing too strenuous. Beavers are in conservation mode by November. Expend as few calories as possible, so the fat and food stores will last until the pond ice thaws and there is sap running in the trees again.

Beavers follow my lunar calendar. Most mammals do. This is the time to curl inward. If you are not actually a hibernator, you still tend to slow down and require more sleep in this time of long nights and ever shortening days. We warm-bloods use a good deal of energy keeping these bodies above ambient temperature even in the summer. In the growing cold of November northern climates, it takes a lot of calories to maintain body temperature. Hibernators just let their bodies cool. Beavers and others who slow but don’t sleep cope with the heating problem by putting up stores of fat and even more stores of easily accessible food and then piling lots of bodies together in a well-insulated space, moving around minimally and directing all calorie burning to heating. Even squirrels get lethargic in November. 

Humans once followed this calendar. Maybe some cultures still do. But now we mostly ignore the growing cold and dark no matter how desperately and obviously our bodies are craving the rest. There are good reasons flu season begins in earnest about now. There is reduced warmth, increased indoor contact with the microbes of others, and we’re all exhausted but refusing to give in to that and sleep. We turn up the thermostat instead. And drink more caffeine.

We also have a large number of feast days in the winter, especially leading up to the solstice as nights are lengthening. (By contrast, after the solstice, as daylight hours increase, our holidays tend to be more about abstinence or simply non-food.) So those who can afford it are packing in the stored fat calories to keep the body warm in the face of winter. But those who can’t afford the feasting or the furnace fuel burning are putting their bodies under stress if they then also keep burning calories at a summer activity rate. This is usually expressed in colds and flus in the early winter and high mortality in January.

I am continually amazed at how much harm we take upon ourselves for the sake of cultural dictates — particularly “work” schedules. I get hung up on details. For example, why is rest considered a luxury? Why do we drive ourselves sick? Is it the nasty status-signaling cult of busy-ness? “Look at how important I am to have continuous demands on my time!” Whatever, dude… Once you’ve met your needs, whatever busy-ness you’re engaged in is waste. At a minimum it is wasting your life, but more often it is wasting your time and a good deal of the world’s resources — including other lives.

But I’m in a vanishingly small minority on this issue. So I try to capture hours in November. I cook one-pot meals that last a week. I make my yogurt and bake my bread on Tuesdays (my “Sunday” given retail schedule and all). I don’t clean and organize the house quite as vigorously, don’t start many projects, exercise in the morning so I’m ready for sleep in the evening. I read a lot. And if my eyes feel heavy, I nap. Even at work. (Gasp!)

There is a video clip of Joe Biden at Glasgow falling asleep during someone’s speech. Most people were highly derisive of his obvious human failing. But I pitied the guy. He’s an old man. It’s bloody cold and uncomfortable in Scotland this time of year. It’s damp and there is no sun. More generally, being POTUS, he defines “busy-ness”. He doesn’t ever get down time. Of course he’s going to nod off when his body finds a somewhat comfortable place with no poking and prodding and prickling. We should want that to happen, not sneer at him. After all, don’t we want our leaders to be healthy? I can’t help but think that maybe some of the ineffective leadership we see from all these old guys might be related to the muddy thinking that comes from sheer exhaustion.

I wouldn’t want to be “leader of the free world” in November. And I’m only in my 50s. But I’m not and would not take the job if it was miraculously laid at my feet. I refuse to be busy. (Also I don’t want leaders of the free world to exist, but that’s another issue…) As it is, I’m very happy to be like a beaver. I’ve stocked my den with what I need. I’m slowing down and doing as little as possible while the days become ever shorter. It is time for sleep.

It may seem odd to begin the year with the Winter Sleep moon, but not to the Irish soul in me. Or maybe not for any lunar oriented time keeper. All beginnings are in darkness. A baby in the womb. A seed in the soil. A butterfly in the chrysalis. A star from vaporous chaos. A new moon from the dark.

So my advice to you — and to those who laugh at Joe Biden — is to be like the beavers. Honor your body’s needs. Give it what it wants in this Winter Sleep moon. You are more important than any busy-ness. And in truth, it’s better for the world if we all just slow down in the proper season.

Tomorrow begins Diwali, the festival of lights. Today, get some rest.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021