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David Bouchier: The big sleep

Michael Himbealt
Wikimedia Commons

French peasants in the 19th century had a hard life. You wouldn’t want to be one of them, except perhaps in January when they had one great advantage over the chilled inhabitants of modern Long Island and Connecticut. According to historian Graham Robb French, peasants in those days essentially hibernated between fall and spring. They settled down indoors with their cows and pigs and slept most of the time. Perhaps it wasn’t true biological hibernation, but it sounds pretty good to me.

How appealing it would be to close up the house, hang a sign on the door for the UPS man saying "Gone into Hibernation," get out the warmest duvet and just tuck down, setting the alarm for about April 10, just in time to get the tax forms in.

Hibernation is one of the many useful skills we've lost in the process of evolution. We tend to forget that evolution is not a one-way street, it can go forwards, backwards or sideways. Staying awake through the winter is definitely a step backwards, perhaps even a fatal step for the northern part of the human race if we ever run out of oil to heat homes and run our snow plows.

January would be the ideal time of year to hibernate. Most of us eat enough over Thanksgiving and The Holidays to carry us through the winter. We could stash away a few pizzas for emergencies, the way squirrels store nuts. Hibernation provides the perfect excuse for two of the most popular human pastimes: eating far too much, and then dieting. We would have to put on as much weight as possible before settling down for the season. Then, during the long winter sleep, like squirrels, we would lose up to 40% of our body weight and emerge in spring, slender and lithe, ready for the swimsuit season.

There's nothing to be afraid of in hibernation. The heartbeat slows, most brain activity ceases, and you drop into a coma-like state. It's just like watching television. Hibernation would increase our lifespan, and it would save wear and tear on the fragile planet. Life would be one perpetual summer.

In hibernation we could sleep right through the Holidays, and why not? We already did the family stuff at Thanksgiving, and we would save a fortune on gifts. Then, still sleeping, we could escape these dark days of January, made even darker by the epidemic and we'd escape February, with the added stress of Valentine's Day, and Presidents’ Day, and the dismal month of March — it would be worth hibernating just to escape March. COVID transmission rates would drop to zero, because there would be no social life, and the virus would die of discouragement. I think that we positively resent those animals who have the good sense to sleep through it all. Look at the way poor old Punxsutawney Phil will be hauled out of his bed on Groundhog Day, just over a week from now, simply to give us an inaccurate weather forecast.

If we followed the good example of bears and groundhogs, the big wake-up in April could be a great Spring Festival. There’s even some grand Spring Awakening music by Gustav Mahler to celebrate the day. A few brave volunteers in the catering industry could be paid to set their alarms a week early, to prepare millions of gallons of coffee and tons of bagels and scrambled eggs and pancakes. And on that first day after hibernation, we could pick up the newspaper and it would be entirely blank, because nothing had happened, and so there would be no news, which would make it the happiest day of the year.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.