The Long Hard Winter

My mother-in-law, who grew up in the rural American South in the wake of the Great Depression, has a lot of interesting expressions that she uses in conversation.  For instance, if someone tells her that they wish they’d done things differently, she might respond with “Woulda, coulda, shoulda didn’t kill the duck and make him soup!”

Around this time of year, she’ll often say something about getting through the long hard winter.  That’s not a reference to the chilly weather.  Where she grew up, it rarely got cold enough to snow; and she’s now living in a well-heated modern house with Social Security and her company pension to pay the bills.  Rather, it’s an expression that goes back to a time before any of the conveniences that we now take for granted, when people in small farming villages had to put aside enough food every autumn to get through the winter.  Harvest festivals such as Thanksgiving and the much older pagan rite of Samhain celebrated the simple blessing of having enough food not to starve.

Nowadays we have supermarkets full of food year-round, as well as other abundant material comforts; but as the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere and the skies become dark and gloomy, many of us feel increasingly anxious and depressed, for reasons we don’t fully understand.  Some people find it helpful to take the herbal supplement St. John’s Wort, which makes the eyes more sensitive to light and thereby fools the brain into subconsciously believing that the longer and brighter days of spring already have arrived.  Some of us install additional lighting in our homes.  We may go out for a walk or jog on days when the sun, low in the southern sky, peeks through the thick November clouds.

But why do we find the shorter days so disconcerting?  I wonder if it might be a consequence of modern society having diverged so far from the conditions under which humanity evolved.  In the long-ago days of our ancestors’ villages, the human species might have developed instincts telling us to get ready for the long hard winter, in much the same way that squirrels instinctively know it’s time to start gathering acorns when the days turn shorter.  The people of these villages wouldn’t have gone around feeling depressed about the change of seasons; they’d have been too busy, as my mother-in-law might say, killing the duck to make him soup.

Modern humans living in industrialized countries don’t make any of the preparations for winter that once were essential to our ancestors’ survival.  Every autumn, instead of gathering in crops, we make our lawns look nice by raking our leaves to the street for the city truck to collect.  We go to the shopping malls hunting for Christmas gifts, rather than going into the forest hunting game for the tribe’s subsistence.  And somewhere deep within our minds, I suspect alarm bells are going off—warnings based solely on instinct, far below the level of our conscious awareness, telling us that we’re all going to starve if we don’t get busy right now bringing in more food.

So we get anxious and depressed.  We start to feel overwhelmed by the nagging thoughts that we ought to be doing more and that we’re falling behind, without enough time to catch up.  We may attribute these feelings to being busier at work, to having a lot of social and family obligations, or to the general rush of the holiday season.  When we do our grocery shopping, we may pick up comfort foods on impulse; and then we gain weight, which is likely to cause even more anxiety and depression in today’s weight-conscious society.

What’s to be done about it?  There’s no way we could all go back to living in primitive villages, even if we wanted to give up today’s conveniences; and of course, not being at risk of starving over the winter does have some distinct advantages.  While it may be tempting to simply medicate the problem away with a supplement like St. John’s Wort or a prescription antidepressant, I believe that what’s needed are some practical ways of bringing the symbolism of the ancient harvest season into our modern lives.

Perhaps the simplest way to go about it is to plant a backyard garden; or, for those who live in apartments, a container garden on the windowsill or balcony.  Setting aside a particular time every day to work in the garden makes it feel like a regular part of life.  Putting harvested crops on display inside the home, such as by filling a bowl with colorful assorted fruits or vegetables, provides a subconscious reminder of the work that went into producing them.  And last but not least—sharing the harvest with friends, family, and neighbors gives everyone a feeling of abundance.

on 11/24/10 in featured, The Unconscious | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. Clay says:

    Any fruits or vegetables I get must either be canned or refrigerated. I won’t set out baskets of them on the table because whenever I do that, I start seeing these tiny flies around the house, and they’re too small and fast to swat! Even the idea that most fruits have fly eggs implanted in them is rather off-putting. That, and I just prefer my fruits to be refrigerated, they’re better cold than at room temperature.

    I will miss the sun, and being able to go out for some fresh air, but I try not to let it bother me. I’ll go out only when absolutely necessary, for groceries or whatever, because I just don’t like to be cold.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    I suppose our ancestors just accepted fruit flies and other insects as a part of life, but I’m with you on that point, Clay; I don’t want them in my house either. Canning the food and putting your jars on a shelf in plain view would be just as effective as a symbol of the harvest, I’d think, plus it would last longer.

    Also, there are some crops that don’t attract flies and look good in a basket, such as the small varieties of squash that are often used for harvest-season decorations.

  3. I am late to read this, but it really resonated with me. I usually get really anxious around the start of fall, and I expected to feel that way this year, but fall came and went and I found myself in good spirits.
    And incidentally, I spent a tremendous amount of time August - October, putting up food. We’ve got potatoes, winter squash, onions and garlic in a friend’s basement, jars of salsa and jam in the pantry and the freezer is packed with wild game, fruits and vegetables.
    Thanks for your perspective!

  4. Gwen McKay says:

    @6512 and growing: I’m glad you found the post meaningful, and I appreciate your taking the time to comment on it. :)

Leave a Reply