Overwintered: Surviving the Seasons

Forget your romantic notions of how living on the land puts you in sync with the seasons. On the northern prairie of Montana, making it through winter may have more to do with hunkering down and ignoring the obvious until spring claws its way back.

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Montanans enjoy telling people how much they love the seasons here. But if you pay attention, you'll note that this praise often comes in the spring or fall – when the brutality of winter is thawing or the oppressive dry heat of summer is starting to lift.

If you ask in January or February, the honest ones will tell you differently. (And in most cases, in strong, worn-out, winter-weary language not appropriate for publication here.)

On Mother's Day, May 11, we had snow. Nay, a blizzard. The first thing I said upon waking that day was a word, as predicted, that the Daily Yonder prefer me not repeat here.

It's been a long winter. Everyone says so.

But I'm not sure it's really been any longer than any other winter. (The winter you just went through is always the longest, right?)

For this family, though, this really has been the longest winter that has ever been. Ever.

One of my friends recently shared a photo of a rosemary plant, peeking through cold dirt but still green and growing. She was so proud to say that the plant had overwintered.

Overwintered.

It's a term we use a lot on the farm we started six years ago in the rural prairie of Montana. We use it to describe what we hope for with our vegetable seed stock or the selected turkeys that get pardoned on Thanksgiving to hatch next year's flock. But this year, the term has become personal. Because honestly, just like the kale that started shooting green sprouts after numerous minus-30 degree days, or the scallions that popped up in the field, or the lilac that still managed to grow buds, I am genuinely surprised we made it to May this year.

The winter after my oldest was born, my husband traveled a lot. We lived in a tiny rental house – cozy and cute, but little and dark. It was one of the longest seasons of my life and the first time I really – and I mean really – felt winter in Montana after living here for most of my life. And then I had another baby. And survived this winter.

Photo by Courtney Lowery Cowgill
Green shoots emerge from the husk of a kale plant that lived through the most recent Montana winter.

During that first longest-of-winters, on one of Jacob's travels, met our now-friend Sarah. She was authentic and funny and driven, and he told her she must meet his wife – the wife who he must have known was struggling and needed a friend just like Sarah. So Sarah took my husband at his word and stopped by one day on her way through. It may have seemed odd to anyone else – these two strangers, gabbing and hugging like old friends. But when you live in the middle of nowhere and you've survived more sub-zero days in a row than you'd like to count, and one of you has been taking care of a suckling baby inside of a dark house for months, and the other's been building an business from scratch in a rural town, it's not so odd at all.

I was reminded of this when Sarah said recently in a TEDx talk, “These raw winters make a person honest.”  (Sarah is the founder of Red Ants Pants and the Red Ants Pants Music Festival) and a genuine rural hero, by the way.)

When we first started farming, I loved how it made us follow the seasons, mirroring natural rhythms. Birth in the spring, ripening in the summer, bounty in the fall and quiet in the winter.

But that was before this last year. That was our first season after buying our own farm and having our little Eli in May. Birth in spring was overwhelming, with too many babies to tend to while recovering from my son’s birth and getting to know my newborn. Then came the ripening of summer with too many weeds to pull and plants to feed and a fussy baby. Fall brought more bounty than we could handle – a baby who was moving and crawling and a toddler who was needing more all the time. Then the winter hit, and the slowness was just too cold, too dark, too lonely for all of us, namely the mother bear in the den.

I started rethinking that romantic idea that we should follow the seasons. Perhaps progress is being able to ignore what's happening outside – keeping a constant flow throughout the year instead of having to bend with the changing of the seasons. Would it just be easier somewhere else? Doing something else?

One day in April, I was cooking dinner and listening to Montana Public Radio reporter Edward O'Brien talk to a bear expert, Mike Madel, about bears starting to emerge from hibernation near us. This exchange stopped me. Almost made me drop the knife I was holding.

Madel: “… Those females who have cubs of the year are the last to emerge. And that's a typical thing that most research project see across the Northern hemisphere. We see bears that have cubs emerge late, last because they're of course nursing their cubs and protecting those cubs to some degree in the den.”

And while I bristled at the thought that I really was just another animal denned up for the winter with her cubs, I also relished that connection to other species. Everything dies a little in the winter, but there's always a spring. Everyone has to emerge from the den sometime.

It's a connection that's hard to hear in this modern life, especially as we have other kinds of connections to maintain.

But progress isn't severing that tie to the natural rhythm – it's learning to move with it. Even in a modern world. And, no matter how grumpy it makes you.

Because slowly, the grass starts to green. The lilacs put out buds. The tulips even bloom.

We watched as our ewes (somewhat effortlessly, I thought, comparatively) birthed their fuzzy little lambs. The sky opened. The birds, oh the birds – they started singing again. The hay started smelling sweet, and the new willow shoots spread their fragrance across the yard. New ideas swirled, hope returned and miraculously, excitement, even enthusiasm, sparked again.

Photo by Courtney Lowery Cowgill
GMontana tulips bloomed long before a Mother’s Day snow storm.

These senses, they pale unless you've been without them for awhile. You don't appreciate the greenness if you haven't just been through too much brown. You don't feel the warmth of a 60-degree day unless you've survived minus 30. You don't hug your friends or your kids or your husband as hard if you haven't just survived together.

These winters do keep us honest. They keep us grounded. They keep us grateful. They make us creative – not on a whim, but out of necessity. More important, getting through does make for good neighbors, good friends, strong family and good people.

Maybe that's what we really mean when we say we love the seasons here.

Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor, teacher and farmer. She and her husband run Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm in Central Montana where they raise vegetables, turkeys and ancient and heritage grains. She also publishes a blog, from which this article is adapted.  

 

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