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8 December 2021

In another pandemic winter, the lure of hibernation is stronger than ever

I thought that I could retreat from the world outside, like a hedgehog or ladybird. But after Covid we will not simply wake and walk back into the sun.

By Helen Macdonald

It happened at the worst possible time. I was driving along the outside lane of the A14 when my heart began to race so fast and so hard, I could hear my pulse loud in my ears. Adrenalin crashed in; waves of sweat; crushing dread. I pulled into a lay-by, cut the engine, opened the glove compartment, managed to find a strip of elderly aspirins and crunched one down, listening to my heartbeat, my ragged breaths, the thundering of Felixstowe-bound trucks, the rain drumming hard on the windscreen, thinking stupidly, “But I don’t want to die on the A14.”

It had been an unremarkable morning. I’d just returned from my first trip abroad for two years – an intense mini-tour in Germany – and had been prepping for another trip to Europe the following week. But now I seemed in danger of sudden death by the side of a busy road. Seconds from calling an ambulance, I realised this was a panic attack. It subsided, slowly. I sat for a while afterwards, prickling with disquiet, then drove carefully home. Back at my desk, glancing at the flights to Vienna still on my laptop screen, there was another thump of fear. I looked up and my eyes snagged on the small cluster of harlequin ladybirds packed tightly around the top of the kitchen window frame. They’d flown and crawled in here to escape the cold, to spend the winter months in hibernation. Like many beetles, when external conditions become inimical to existence, they seek refuge, become near inert, their world shrunk to the few millimetres between their carapaces.

I was looking at them longingly, I realised. With something like envy. Which was absurd. Why would I do that? And then I understood that my trip to Germany had been too much, too soon. The pandemic had instilled in me a form of functional agoraphobia, and the panic attack had happened simply because I was terrified to travel again.

I cancelled the trip and found myself musing on the concept of hibernation a lot over the next few days. I’d never thought about it before. I’m a bird enthusiast: apart from a few species that can enter brief states of torpor – and a small nightjar called a common poorwill that hibernates among piles of rocks in parts of its American range – birds don’t hibernate: they’re able to fly to warmer climes where food is abundant. But hibernators are everywhere. Some organisms hibernate all winter, waking for brief periods in which their temperature and metabolism return to normal – a process that allows them to conduct maintenance on their vital organs and experience periods of natural sleep. Others, such as reptiles, fall into a state called brumation, slipping in and out of torpor in response to ambient temperatures.

[See also: Where have all the sparrows gone?]

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Right now, in hedgerows, in woodpiles and under sheds, hedgehogs are curled in thick masses of dry leaves and stems to wait out the winter, breathing once every few minutes, heart rates slowed to 20 beats a minute. Balls of bees keep themselves warm in hives. Bats are suspended in roofs, caves and dead trees, their body temperatures lowered, metabolisms minimised. Peacock butterflies cling to the interior walls of outbuildings unmoving, like thin, charcoaled slips of paper.

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Hibernation, like many natural phenomena, is a ready human metaphor. It can summon the lure of disengagement from the responsibilities of everyday life, or a refusal to engage with wider society and politics. It can stand for a desire for self-sufficiency, to be left alone. At this point in the long pandemic, the idea of escaping hardship by requiring nothing – becoming oblivious to one’s surroundings, cutting out great swathes of time – felt a disturbing, beguiling dream.

However alluring the metaphor, hibernation isn’t what has happened to us. We’ve not lost time, like a torpid bat. We’ve changed it, and it’s changed us. I’ve had many conversations with people about the strangeness of subjective time over the past two years; academics have even written papers on it. When the world shrinks to our domestic spaces and grocery stores, time seems to pass far more slowly than it did before. And yet, perhaps because of the grief intrinsic to the pandemic, or because of the scarcity of memorable events and new places, it also feels as if time is running far too fast. “Last Christmas only feels like three or four months ago,” one friend confessed to me recently. “I don’t understand where the time has gone.”

This paradoxical telescoping and extending of pandemic time recalls the temporal effects of grief, in which the months following a bereavement drag with unbearable slowness – but memories of long-ago times with lost loved ones can conjure their presence so arrestingly, they can feel as if they happened only a few weeks ago. And grief is caught up in all of this: not only for people we’ve lost, but a world we have lost, too. Most of us began this pandemic thinking that life would return to normal. We all now know that this is a fiction; nothing will return to what it was before.

But what I hadn’t understood until my panic attack ushered in a fitful fascination with hibernation was this: though I was at peace with the knowledge that the world had changed, I hadn’t considered the possibility that I had changed, too. Like a hedgehog in a pile of leaves, I was deluded enough to believe I was waiting out this dreadful winter, ready to wake and walk back into the sun. What we’ve experienced is not a hibernation: we are altered creatures, personally, socially, culturally and politically. Cocooned in lockdown, we have undergone a metamorphosis, brute in parts, subtle and far-reaching in others, and there is both hope and deep trepidation in knowing that we must wait to see what forms we will take when we finally emerge.

Helen Macdonald’s essay collection “Vesper Flights” is published by Vintage

[See also: To be alone in Norway’s highlands is to remember what it is to be human]

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special