I’ve lived mostly in northern climates where long, cold winters are expected. In Minnesota and South Dakota, the two states in which I’ve spent the most time, one can expect winter to last through April and sometimes even well into May. Considering that November is also almost always cold, this means that even though there are technically four seasons in both places, most of them are winter.
Growing up, I loved Christmas. What child doesn’t? But when I was told at some point that many traditions associated with Christmas had their ancient origins in a “return to the light,” and the shifting of the seasons towards spring, I was surprised. Wouldn’t February have been a better time for that? Winter’s barely begun in December. But February? Well, by February, we could all really use some festivities. Why didn’t our ancient predecessors have more elaborate rituals and celebrations to get through the hardest, often bleakest part of the year?
A few years ago I was reading a piece by Lakota writer Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve in which she notes that traditionally, instead of counting someone’s age in years since birth, her ancestors’ age was counted in winters survived. It suddenly occurred to me in a very visceral way why people who lived before the global supply chain made year-round food readily available weren’t celebrating in January and February – they were conserving resources and energy just trying to stay alive.
Last year we had a terrible potato crop. Potatoes were the one crop I thought was impossible to fail at growing, but I was wrong. Perhaps it was because after planting time it passed so quickly from very cold to very hot, but whatever the cause, the plants came up spindly and frail, and the tubers produced resembled baby potatoes despite being in the ground all summer.
Usually, we make it to spring with enough mealy, sprouting potatoes left to use as seed for the next autumn’s harvest, but this year we’ve already eaten all we grew. I even had to buy potatoes to make our customary mashed potatoes at Christmas. In a different time or circumstance, this would be more than just a blow to my pride; our meager potato crop could have been the difference between all of us living through the winter or not. And, with no seed potatoes for the following year, our failure might have lingered for generations.
Yesterday, a seed catalog from my favorite seed company arrived. The company is located in central North Dakota, and therefore cultivates their seeds in conditions similar to ours. They specialize in heirloom varieties, including some seeds that were originally domesticated by the Hidatsa, a tribe who farmed the bottomlands of the Missouri River, a tributary for which runs north of our ranch.
At dinner, the kids wanted me to tell them a story. “How ‘bout I read to you from the new seed catalog?’ I said.
“What? No!” They replied. “That’s not a story!”
“Let me just read about the beans,” I said, “And then you can decide which ones we will grow this summer.”
Brief grumbling ensued, but before long they were hooked.
“Let’s plant those second ones you read about. Those sound really good. Right, Mama?” said my son.
“No, no, let’s plant the purple ones with speckles,” my daughter retorted.
“We will plant them both,” I said with a coy smile, quite satisfied by the situation, but also humbled that it was such an easy choice to make.
From now on, I am going to think of the long, cold months following Christmas as a celebration of the wonders of seed catalog season, wherein I attempt to appreciate the unbelievable abundance I’ve somehow been granted. This part of the winter will be for dreaming the garden, but it will also be filled with gratitude for gifts a millennia-old. Gifts from gardens carefully tended, from seeds faithfully saved – the miracle of life contained within every seed packet I order a wealth impossible to measure.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website. Or listen to an interview with Eliza on Everywhere Radio with Whitney Kimball Coe.