In July, my dog Rosie was outside, desperately barking. This is not unusual for her; the neighbors talking will set her off. But she just wouldn’t quit—and then I noticed she was standing in front of a bush, her head bent to the ground. I brought her in and went back outside to explore. Near the bush I discovered a sweet little western box turtle. I named her Hazel.
Initially I pretended that I wanted to adopt Hazel for my 11-year-old son; I’ve long given up that pretense. I’m in love with that turtle. Although I’m incredibly unhandy, I managed to build a pen for her in my backyard. She has a little burrow where she would sleep every night. Every night her time in the burrow got progressively longer until one day at the beginning of November when she didn’t emerge at all.
Hazel is “brumating” (hibernation for the cold-blooded); I will see her in the spring.
Hazel has helped me feel closer to the seasons and to changes not just in temperature, but length of day which define those seasons. As we move closer to the longest night of the year, it bears reflecting on the most ancient of all rhythms that exist, the daily pattern of light and dark.
Our winter holidays all have some rootedness in yearning for light. Some of us experience winter and the short days with difficulty, desiring to sleep more and feeling less motivated (at its more extreme, there is an association of winter with depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder). The roots of this are thought to relate to an adaptive mechanism in highly-seasonal environments far from the equator, with long dark winters and food production limited to warmer times of the year. Increasing sleep during the winter would conserve energy at a time when food was more scarce and help maintain body temperature better, while increased energy and capacity for work would be beneficial during warmer, more productive months.
It is easy to appreciate the value of such an adaptation prior to electrical lighting and in communities where the all food was produced locally in season. But how can we modern humans we have a healthy relationship to dimmer days? One way is to try to expose oneself to as much natural light in early morning as possible. Sunlight contains blue light, which wakes us up. Also, the more robust our exposure to light in the morning, the better our melatonin rise in the evening is—this is the brain chemical that mediates sleep. To that end, avoiding blue light at night, which suppresses melatonin, can improve sleep. Blue light is found in light bulbs and electronic screens. Consider limiting exposure before bed, or consider amber glasses that filter out blue.
Here’s to Hazel for keeping me more in touch with the shortening days and the seasons, and here is to the lengthening of days after the solstice this month, which bring me closer to spring and to getting to hang out with her again.
Dr. Sally Fisher specializes in evidence-based integrative and nutritional medicine and is Sunrise Springs’ Medical Director. Her desire and intention is to have those she works with feel deeply that she is fully present, with warmth, humor, and knowledge, as she helps people to explore ways of enhancing their health and wellness.