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14 November, 2010


A decade of tropical living, gardening and bush-whacking through jungle scrub and desert, eroded my memory of dormancy. Arrowroot and olena clung to an ancestral habit of sprouting in spring and retreating in winter, but for the most parts seasons were worn down and subtle: high temps dropped 10 degrees, mangoes had new shoots or flowers or fruit. But the ground never froze and the trees declined to drop all their leaves and retreat for months.

The Puget Sound lowlands have a bit of a blunted seasonality as well, out vast basin of water keeps the summer from getting too hot or the winter too cold, but there's no escaping trhe latitude, a little past the halfway point from equator to pole. Even the warmest winter lacks the light to keep leaves happy, and as you may have heard, the clouds here jealously filter out as much winter sun as possible.

So the trees that invest in something more than miserly needles are forced each autumn to surrender their wealth, dropping leaves to replenish the soil, and letting the sap settle back down to rest before the spring engorgement. Some plants compltely retreat into the ground, ceding the airspace. Some big critters hibernate, while hordes of insects and their arthopodic kin fall back even further into pupae and eggs, all the winter hiding places of the summer swarms.

Humans bury themselves in layers of textiles, avoid the cold rainy outdoors, and maybe withdraw into depressive solitude. (I'm guessing that over the years, I'll post more entries in winter than summer. One day many people may read this blog, but the making of it is a thing I accomplish alone, buried deep in the loam.)

Winter and dormancy always get saddled with the death metaphors, with the pall of loss and sad decay. Their contributions to fecundity lack the photogeneity of spring. Who wants to turn away from the flower in bloom to look at grey decay, at ill-lit muck?

But the frozen exoskeleton and waterlogged leaves fuel the spring growth. The respite from insects and warm weather give the plants a chance to recover and regroup. The cold and wet winnow the unhealthy. And hidden below ground, roots and hyphae may not be so dormant, the infrastructure for the superstructure often advances before and after any action is evident up top.

And not so much here, but in the desert regions there are species that go dormant for more than a season, beyond a year. Baked in mud, buffeted by winds, biding their time and witholding action until the right rain hits and then bursting forth with astonishing vigor from some unimpressive husk.

Seeds may not be dormant as biologists defined it, but an inert capsule that holds in it the germ of an entire organism seems like a special case of the same phenomenon. The joy of gathering seed each fall, knowing that the seed from one plant can birth a whole bed of progeny is one of the things that keeps me gardening and happy. I've seen seeds buried for decades or longer sprout when given the chance, and there are species whose seeds are engineered to outlast the elements in wait of the wet year or the fire that triggers growth.

My garden is about done for this season, and there are plenty of perennials, bulbs and bushes gone dormant. I'll find some excuses over the winter to go out and work--removing a stump or planning new beds, maybe--but in general I'm goign into garden dormancy as well. Other pursuits spring to life: writing and carving, reading and dreaming. At least some of these will prove to be roots that strengthen next years growth.

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