Nature Knows: Torpor, or Dormancy

Here I sit, struggling to maintain stay-at-home and physical distancing rules in the time of COVID19.

I am the sort of person that thrives on interpersonal connections. I have trained myself over the years not to be “touchy” because our normal social structure is not one of hugs, but of handshakes, and now even that small, polite, brevity of skin-to-skin ritual is no more. At least for awhile. And this is very hard for me.

I am now working from home, which I hate. Yes, there are benefits and I am trying to remember those: no commute, healthier lunches, maybe getting up a little later in the morning, and the possibility of a run or walk in the day with a comfortable shower after. But this is hard. I like people walking past my office, and the dedicated space of my office (I am working at our dining table at home), an office phone (not my personal cell phone), and the visits at the kitchenette with my co-workers. I prefer a significant and clear separation of work and home life. I like meeting in person, and I love presenting in real time and space to a full room. The three conferences I was planning to speak at in April have been have been cancelled or moved.

It’s been a week, and I am still struggling, and I feel guilty about struggling when I have it so easy in so many ways. I can work from home. I can protect my health, the health of my family. I can walk to a grocery in weird hours, easily. I am not in a high risk pool. I am not a healthcare worker. I am not living paycheck to paycheck.

I need inspiration to adjust. And so I look to Nature.

The closest thing to what we’re experiencing is a torpor, a slowing, maybe a hibernation of sorts. Nature knows hibernation. The trees use a slower time of the year to shed and then regrow leaves and in this process they represent glorious colors in autumn, stoic bare limbs in the winter to protect from vicious winds, and then hopeful buds of emergence in the spring.

Polar bears come close to a state of hibernation, and they actually bear young late in their period of torpor. Some species that hibernate recycle urine in this phase, and produce no waste, accessing the waste instead in some beneficial bizarre shift and re-tooling of physical process. Seeds can remind dormant for years, and then produce well, as if no years have passed, once there is an introduction to moisture and sunshine.

And humans have been known to create marvelous things while “dormant” through incarceration or illness. A quote going around during this shutdown is about Sir Isaac Newton and all he was able to develop/deduce while Cambridge was shut down for two years. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote while in prison. Such vision in that writing. Several works by Thoreau were written while he was incarcerated, somehow making the connection to Nature while separate from it. The list is long, indicating that when people are forced to slow their life down (for good or bad), and they move to introspection, they can access creative forces that may otherwise be elusive.

Our lives have been changed and we do not know fully yet how, or for how long. It may be that this slowing, this distancing, is for only a few short months. It may be a reoccurring structural shift until, or even after, a real vaccine is created. It could be a signal for us that we must adjust our living patterns for all time, to reduce our style of function to focus on local relationships, local foods, local shopping, and regional travel at most.

What we do know, per Nature’s experiences and lessons, is that there is an opportunity inherent in this moment. The potential is for great creativity that could be pivotal in adjusting to a new reality or to solving it in some real, systemic, societal way, or it could invite totally unrelated revelations as people have time to delve into creative thought and artistic expressions.

Hibernation and torpor in Nature exist to help animals and plants survive a time of limited resources and/or dangerous weather. And as evidenced by the joy and vibrancy of the emergence after the slowing, think of the bloom of crocuses in early spring or the peep of new birds, there is a whole lot going on, even when life seems to be paused.

What can we learn in this slowing? What will emerge with us? Let’s think deeply and with curiosity on this, and embrace the opportunity to be greener,


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