Surviving the winter: Plants and animals

Whilst I struggle with winter, at least I have a warm and cosy flat and somewhere dry and comfy to snuggle up.  Plants and animals don’t have it so easy.  Over time they have adapted a number of different ways to cope with the harsh weather that winter brings.

There are four main strategies for coping with winter:

  1. Stay active, but adapt
  2. Hibernate
  3. Die, leaving offspring behind in a form that lets them survive
  4. Migrate

Before we look at the options, let’s consider the problems that plants and animals face in the UK.  Obviously it’s cold.  There are frosts and this is a really significant factor as most organisms are made up of a lot of water and frost can lead to their tissues freezing which leads to death.  Other problems include reduced food supply, shorter days can mean less time to find food, lack of light, shortage of water in a liquid form, after all, you can’t drink ice.

Plants and animals know when winter is approaching by sensing environmental cues such as lower temperatures and shorter days.  This knowledge means they can start preparing, for example by building up fat reserves, shedding leaves, hoarding food etc.

Stay active, but adapt

Some organisms continue to be active despite the challenging weather and are able to do this because over time they have adapted strategies to help them.  Growing thicker feathers or fur is one such adaptation; the house sparrow has 11.5% more feathers in winter than in summer.  Squirrels which hide away nuts for the winter are another example of adapting to the weather.

Social behaviours change.  Birds which are normally solitary or found in pairs form flocks for the winter.  This increases food efficiency, reduces heat loss and increases protection from predators.

In the plant world, we see evergreen plants toughing it out.  The main issue for them in the winter is lack of water.  Their needle shaped leaves reduce surface area and this reduces water loss.  They also have a waxy layer which further prevents water loss.  This means the tree retains water throughout the winter and thus are better able to survive.  A lot of adaptations however mean trade offs.  In this case, the shape of the needles makes them less efficient in the spring and summer.

Deciduous trees also struggle with reduced water over winter and it’s also harder to photosynthesise when there is less light.  They’ve dealt with this issue by letting go of their leaves.  Before they do so, they move the water, sugars, minerals etc from the leaves to the woody part of the tree.  Then the chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down and reabsorbed into the main tree.  This leaves behind other pigments which aren’t useful to the tree such as orange carotenes and yellow xanthophylls which is why leaves become the gorgeous colours we associate with autumn.

Hibernation

Some animals will go into a full state of hibernation whilst others go into a sort of semi-hibernation which is affected by weather conditions.

In hibernation, the metabolic activity reduces significantly which helps them to conserve energy and survive the winter.  This includes incredibly low heart rates, as low as 10% of their normal heart rate.

Before hibernation, these animals must eat a lot of food and store it as fat.  Whilst this strategy allows animals to survive the difficult winter, it is imperative that they find food again soon after emerging.

Hedgehogs are one example of a true hibernator.  Depending on the weather, they may enter hibernation any time between October and December and emerge again in March or April.  During this period, their heartbeat can fall from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute and its body temperature drops from 35˚C to just 10˚C.

Other UK hibernators include bats, dormice, some insects such as ladybirds, amphibians and reptiles.

Die

This might sound a drastic solution to facing winter but it’s one a number of species implement.  For example, annual plants will complete their life cycle in a year.  During the summer they release their seeds and then they start to die, but leaving behind lots of babies in the form of seeds.  Seeds are a much better form to face the winter in than as a leafy, lush plant which will not be able to cope with frost.

Another organism which often uses this strategy is butterflies.  Many butterflies die shortly after mating and laying eggs and their young then face winter as caterpillars and chrysalises which is much safer.  Some butterflies have adapted to hibernate over winter instead.

Migrate

About 40% of the birds that breed in Britain don’t spend winter here, instead heading off for sunnier places.  But it’s not just birds that migrate, caribou, reindeer, monarch butterflies and other insects all do as well (obviously not UK examples!).

Migration allows animals to find warmer places with better food supplies and less risk of freezing to death.  However, it’s not an easy option.  It’s estimated that swallows suffer 67% annual mortality, much of which is during migration.  Migration is an expensive venture in terms of calories and brings with it risks of predators, shooters and ….

Whilst you might not think it, more northerly birds do migrate to the UK for our comparatively warmer winters.  This includes many kinds of ducks and geese as well as fieldfares, redwings and bramblings.

Migrant butterflies include red admirals and painted ladies which arrive in vast numbers so their caterpillars can hatch here and enjoy the thistles and nettles in the summer.

A likely overlooked migrant is the basking shark which heads to our shores over the summer to eat the concentrated numbers of plankton found here.

Useful links

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November’s resources

I’ve found this to be another fascinating topic.  I was slightly concerned that there was going to be lots to think about when it came to animals and humans and significantly less when it came to plants.  I’ve been proven wrong.  Perhaps it’s obvious that since we are so connected, our lives so indebted to plants, there was going to be plenty of fruit to harvest.  But again, that plant blindness has fooled me.  If nothing else, my key takeaway from this month is the value of plants and how overlooked they are.  I hope in the future, I see plants through a different eye, that I can learn more names and get to know my local plants more intimately.  This has been something I’ve been working on very slowly this year but I’m terrible at remembering what things and people look like so it’s not coming especially naturally.  But I  feel I owe it to the plants, and to myself, to try.

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Books etc

  • A little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow
  • Plants are Magic Magazine
  • Creative Countryside Magazine
  • The day of the triffids by John Whyndham
  • Yorkshire Through Placenames by R.W. Morris
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • An Empire of Plants by Tuby and Will Musgrave
  • Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
  • What a plant knows by Daniel Chamovitz

TV

  • The Secret History of the British Garden with Monty Don
  • Botany – A Blooming History
  • 73rd St Productions – lots of really interesting talks
  • Ken Albala – his youtube channel has a lot of fascinating information about the history of food and drink, something I’ve not covered too much here but which provides a lens into the history of humans and plants
  • Why Fruits Change Color and Flavor as They Ripen
  • How aspirin was discovered
  • Into The Imagined Forest
  • Little Shop of Horrors (on Prime)
  • It’s stretching things a bit but The Martian involves a botanist who uses his plant knowledge to survive, I enjoyed it anyway! (Netflix)
  • A monster calls (Prime)

Websites and articles

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The holly and the ivy

This month, looking at plants, is nearly at a close but before we head into December, I thought it would be timely to consider plants and Christmas.  I’m not especially into Christmas but there is a lot of tradition surrounding it which can be interesting.  Also, I’ve not yet looked at holly or ivy in my plant spirit posts and was already planning to, so this will kill two plants with one blog post as it were.

According to the telegraph, the song relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil.

Holly

Holly is a broad leaved, evergreen which is found in most of Europe.  In Britain, it tends to grow as an understory beneath oaks.

Holly is well known for it’s spines which are obviously there to deter predators, and less sharp leaves can be found higher up the plant.  For those intrepid herbivores who still take a bite, the leaves contain bitter tasting alkaloids.

It is a slow growing plant which can live for 250-300 years which has become iconic at Christmas time.  It’s wavy edged leaves and prickly spines, glossy and rich green take a long time to decay.  This may be one aspect of the holly’s nature which has contributed to it’s association with eternal life, with it’s evergreen demeanour being another.  In the midst of winter, when all is dark and cold, the holly continues to rule with dignity, facing the challenging weather head on.

Holly is considered masculine to the ivy which is feminine, possibly because the holly is spiky and defensive where the ivy is more graceful?  Interestingly, the nature of the holly brought into the house is supposed to determine or predict whether the house will be ruled by man or woman in the coming year.  The smooth edged type signalling a woman’s rule. Another tradition says the same but for holly and ivy, with the plant first brought into the house marking the future year.

Holly was planted near homes as it was said to protect against lightning strikes.  As with the oak, it is said to be associated with thunder and hence Thor.  Bringing twigs into the house wards off evil spirits, which I imagine are particularly active in the dark nights of winter.  Another seasonal link is found with the holly king who rules the year from mid summer to mid winter, when the oak king takes over.

Whilst the tradition of bringing holly into the house goes back much further, Christianity has appropriated it as a representation of Jesus.  Holly is said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Ivy is another evergreen plant and also represents eternity.  It can grow in difficult environments and climbs upwards, using other plants, to reach the sunlight.  Given enough time, they can also bind together other plants which has been taken to mean it is symbolic of unions, whether friendships or more.  It can also mean fidelity and peace (as it brings together different plants).

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As we’ve just seen, ivy is considered feminine and apparently in Ancient Greek mythology, there was a dancing girl who danced herself to death, dying at the feet of Dionysus.  He was moved by her dancing and transformed her into the ivy plant.  Moving to Rome, ivy is said to be linked to the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysus’ counterpart.  I wonder if this is in part due to the way ivy grows in a similar way to grape vines?  Don’t try eating ivy berries though… they’re poisonous.

On Owlcation, Edith Rickert, who researched carols from 1400-1700, is referenced as noting that many holly and ivy carols existed during this time period and often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

From a Christian perspective, Ivy, with it’s need to use other plants for support, is said to be a reminder that we need to cling to god for support…

If you’ve read some of my animal spirit posts, you’ll have realised that virtually everything is a symbol for an aspect of Christianity.  Hence my cynical tone here is not about the religion, it’s about the shoehorning of symbolism.

And a tiny note about mistletoe

Mistletoe was thought to protect from evil and was also associated with fertility.  Whilst we use it today for Christmas, it was thought to be bad luck to bring it into the house before New Years Eve.  On a basic level, this makes more sense for the current practice of kissing under mistletoe, surely you want a new relationship to start as the year starts not as it dies?

It was used in homes to protect from lightening and evil but because it is associated with paganism, it’s said to be banned from churches*, except York Minster.  Here, it is laid on the high altar on Christmas Eve.  Then a proclamation was made which pardoned and granted freedom to “inferior and wicked people”.

*Although in practice I’m not sure this is actually the case…

November’s reading

Naturally there was been a large element of fairy tales in this month’s reading!  And we’ve taken a look at plants and trees in literature, folklore, poetry and nursery rhymes already.  So here I’m going to look a little more closely at a few less well known poems.

What the trees do by Laura Scott

This might be the poem I’d have tried to write this month if it hadn’t already been written.  Of course, I ‘m not saying I could have pulled it off as well as Laura does – this poem was Commended in the resurgence prize 2017 awards.

“a long time ago
one of them
caught the heel of a girl”

Such a relatable opening, a moment we get drawn in by, we’ve all been there, our shoes caught by a tree branch or root.  But oh, how the tale continues, weaving us into the girl as the girl is woven into the tree.  The delightful, childlike, opening stanza becomes ominous in its repetition at the close.  A warning, a cry for help, a lesson to be learnt.  Be careful when you enter the forests, for you never come out the same.

Aside: When I did a search to refind the link to the poem, I came up with an article called Not All Trees Are Meant to Bear Fruit: Laura Scott on Living Childless by Choice.  I have no idea if it’s the same Laura Scott but it could be another lens through which to read the poem.

Don Paterson, Two Trees

Don Paterson reads ‘Two Trees’ from Faber and Faber on Vimeo.

 

Two Trees has a different structure to What the Trees Do and at first this makes the poem feel upbeat and positive and indeed, Don Miguel achieves the challenging task of entwining two trees.  Trees, which like lovers in old age, become tangled up and inseparable.  The poem could easily have ended there.  Miguel, master of a magic tree, infamous in the village.

But in steps an unnamed name.  And I think it’s important he is nameless.  We feel like we know Miguel, we have a sense of him and obviously his name.  The lack of name emphasises a sense of distance between us, the reader, and this man and his actions.  As the nameless man hacks away at the tree, separating what had grown so close, and on a whim, we mourn for the tree.  In the tree, we see a malicious man destroying strong relationships for no particular reason.

But the trees survive, against the odds, resilient, like we are.  They have weathered their particular storm and they live on.

The nameless man, who has no dreams, is clearly very different to Miguel who gets out of bed one morning with the idea.  Miguel is portrayed as a dreamer, but one with practical skills and perseverance.  The nameless man feels brutal and cruel.  He has no reason behind his actions and whilst the trees do not die, that may not have been the case.  One man is creator, the other destroyer.

I like the irony of the last two stanzas.  This poem is about trees, and it could well be all it’s about.  It could easily be an anecdote being shared but I doubt that many of us read it that way.

Covered by the Forest by Elizabeth Rimmer

I love this poem.  I’ve not really got a lot to say but I really enjoyed the way I felt when I read it.  It was like I was sinking into the forest, grounding myself, connecting with the moment and getting lost amongst the trees.  Whilst this echoes the subject matter, I think the careful choice of words and rhythm guided my transition from reader to tree.

She has another, seasonally relevant, poem called Naming the Autumn (at the bottom of the page, beneath an interesting sort of bio written by Rimmer), I also really like Slow Plant Crossing (a little way down the page).

Who speaks for the trees?

“Like most people, I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood”
– Hope Jahren

I was intrigued when I read this.  I know I have a number of particular trees from my childhood that I remember deeply and which were very important to me.  But then I had a wood in my garden growing up.  Do children without this access have trees they remember later in life?  I suspect my school friends remembered my tree house, the trees they climbed when they came to play and running through the woods at night on bonfire night.  But what about other children?  I’d love to know, partly because it fascinates me, but also because, if we never get to know a tree deeply enough to remember them, how can we speak for them?

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To speak for trees may sound like a job purely for a treehugger.  For an ardent activist.  And yes, it might be, but it’s also a job for me, and a job for you.  It’s a job for all of us.  For politicians, voters, businesses, scientists, forestry people, walkers…  We all need to speak for the trees, for what are we without them?

But we cannot speak for a tree if we don’t know what it is telling us.  We need to know our trees, deeply and personally.  We need to read it’s bark like a memoir, it’s leaves like flags.  We must hear from the plants and the animals and the birds that live in and near the tree, for without them, the voice is incomplete.

It is easy to assume a tree can stand it’s own ground.  They are personlike. They are sentinel, on guard.  They are in many ways, like man with arms and legs and a head and a trunk.

It is easy to assume that everything in a trees life is fine, that they are happy and satisfied. Their constant nature, the sense that they protect us can trick us into thinking they are ok.  But to glance at a tree is not to know the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to respect the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to cherish the tree.

“We do not realise that the fields and the trees have fought and still fight for their respective places on this map – which, by natural right, belong entirely to the trees”
– Thomas Murton?

Unless we get to know our trees, we cannot speak for them.  These magnificent, seemingly unassuming, beings have much to offer us, if we just approach, and listen.

“Because they are primeval, because they outlive us, because they are fixed, trees seem to emanate a sense of permanence. And though rooted in earth, they seem to touch the sky. For these reasons it is natural to feel we might learn wisdom from them, to haunt about them with the idea that if we could only read their silent riddle rightly we should learn some secret vital to our own lives; or even, more specifically, some secret vital to our real, our lasting and spiritual existence.”
– Kim Taplin

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
– Hermann Hesse

Who should speak for trees?  All of us.  And yet no one.  No one but she who has taken the time to listen.

Beyond the fairytale forest

Of course, forests don’t just feature in fairy tales, we find them in nursery rhymes, poems, stories and folklore.  We have trees as metaphors, trees as symbols and trees with deeply embedded beliefs.

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Trees as metaphors and symbols

Perhaps the most obvious tree metaphor is not being able to see the wood for the trees, but we also have family trees and deadwood and branches of study.  As well as all the other plant metaphors.  Not quite trees, but we have hedgefunds and we have leaflets.  We have the tree of the world, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in some form in most cultures. We have holly trees, ivy and fir trees to represent Christmas and tree hugging needs no explanation as a representation of environmentalism.

Trees have made it into sayings and proverbs throughout the world.

“Though a tree grows so high, the falling leaves return to the root.”

–  Malay proverb

“A tree falls the way it leans.”

Bulgarian proverb

“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.”

Welsh proverb

“To Plant a Garden is to Believe in Tomorrow”
– Audrey Hepburn

From a folklore perspective, we find trees as wise advisers, as teachers, as storytellers as well as gateways to other worlds.  In Germany, it was said that babies came from hollow trees and elsewhere holes in trees were thought to be doorways to the spirit world.  In some African cultures, trees can be seen as a connection between man and god.  Trees are often markers and a number of traditions respect the trees as “standing people” who can offer help and to whom offerings are made.

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The Tree Ogham is an ancient druidic system of tree lore which is thought to have been used as a form of written communication.  Each symbol is linked to a tree and contains within it a wealth of knowledge.   For more about individual trees, or to get a sense of the wealth of information held in folklore about different species, have a look at my plant spirit posts.  My tree oracle cards also give an idea of the depth of symbolic meaning you can find in trees.

Trees in literature

From Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree through to The Day of the Triffids, trees are found in books and stories.  Sometimes they are settings, sometimes characters, sometimes symbolic.  In the legends of Arthur, Merlin is turned into a tree, a way of imprisoning a character by limiting their movement.  Lord of the Rings has a cast of trees as does the land of Oz.

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Forests are often used, as in fairytales, to denote a dark, chaotic place, such as the forests which surround Dracula’s home and in Dante’s inferno.  There are the forests of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In her Wonderland travels, Alice finds herself in a forest.  Forests are  home to the Gruffalo and in the Wind in the Willows, the forest is a terrifying place to be avoided.  And where would Robin Hood have been without a forest to hide in?!

Of course, not all forests are malevolent, there is the much friendlier 100 acre wood, home of winnie the pooh where the bear himself resides in a tree and his little friend piglet lives in an oak.  And Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree is magical and filled with interesting characters.

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It is not just that forests feature in literature, it is that some of these tales would not be the same without the forest.  There would be no testing ground, no space for initiation, no tricky challenge to overcome.  There would be nowhere to hide from adult eyes and nowhere to be explored and conquered.  For forests hide secrets and forests make it easy to hide in a way that most landscapes, with horizons that stretch to the clouds, do not.

We have forests in poetry across time as well as in songs.  If you go down to the woods today and I had a Little Nut Tree are just two examples of trees in nursery rhymes.  We have Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round an Old Oak Tree, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree* and of course, all of the Christmas related tree songs.

*Perhaps not the most obvious tree songs but I’m not very good at remembering song titles!

How does the state of forests today affect these stories?

Forests are changing, we’ve already seen that today’s landscape is very different to that of the past.  And how we use forests and the type of trees within them is changing.  That is to say, we are changing the very essence of the forests which are held within the tales we’ve looked at.  What does that mean for the forests and what does that mean for the stories?

On the one hand, we have the argument that the forest still permeates our arts and lives and on the other hand, the idea that as ancient woodland disappears, so too does our cultural associations with the forest.

“Enchantment can still be found in forests if you know how to look”
– Sharon blackie

“The deepwood is vanished in these islands – much indeed, had vanished before history began – but we are still haunted by the idea of it. The deepwood flourishes in our architecture, art and above all in our literature”
– Robert Macfarlane

“Many untold memories, ancient fears and dreams, popular traditions, and more recent myths and symbols are going up in the fires of deforestation”
– Robert Pogue Harrison

The nature of fairy tales and oral stories means they do change over time, but we must be careful not to lose the forest of literature altogether.  Perhaps take a moment and ponder, what does the forest mean to you?  The literal and the fiction versions.  How has one influenced the other for you?

What do trees see?

“I find trees a source of constant wonder – the more I discover about them, the more I stand in awe… To touch the trunk of an ancient tree is to touch history.  Such trees are markers of previous generations… They are silent witnesses to our passing – a presence bigger than us, living on a different time scale”
– Christina Harrison

Trees are witness to many events.  They are there when wars are raged.  They are there when young lovers carve their initials together in a declaration of commitment.  They are there to watch when a small girl falls and grazes her knee in the park.  They are there in the churchyard when we are born, when we marry, when we die.  Trees are witness to many events, they are keepers of history, of time.

They see the squirrel scurrying up and down and back and forth.  They see the fledglings take their first brave leap, year after year.  They see the river meander past, always the same and always different.  They see the light of the day fading night after night to give way to a star scattered sky.  They see the year turn from green to red to white, again and again.

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They feel the sun on their leaves, the rip of a leaf being pulled off by a passing child.  The tug of a fruit being picked.  The scrambling feet of an earnest tree climber.  They feel the tentative first steps of a baby bird and the nest being made in the branches.  They feel the ivy and lichen growing round and over them, leeching and thieving.  They feel the cold winter wind buffeting against the bark and pushing the trunk this way and that.  The love blind carvings of two young people wounding the tree in hope of eternal romance.  They feel each pitter patter of rain crash into them and the weight of snow on branches.

They near the noise of the forest, the calls of the birds, the cracking of branches in the undergrowth.  The sounds a tree hears can make or break the tree’s day.  To a tree, the subtle difference between leaves rustling in the wind and rustling because a birds has flapped through them is fundamental. The creak and moan of a storm swaying a trunk rings loud as the chainsaw of death.  The sounds of the life which call the tree home.  The familiar owls, the sound of an unfamiliar hedgehog rustling round the roots.  The tree hears it all.

“The oaks and the pines, their brethren of the wood, have seen so many suns rise and set, so many seasons come and go, and so many generations pass into silence, that we may well wonder what ‘the story of the trees’ would be to us if they had tongues to tell it, or we ears fine enough to understand.”
– Maud van Buren