Thursday, December 11, 2008

to my friends in europe: hibernate like it's 1900!


this is an extract from a very interesting article from graham robb on the new york times:

economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the [french] revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. the fields were deserted from flanders to provence. villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. as soon as the weather turned cold, people all over france shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.


in the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. “seven months of winter, five months of hell,” they said in the alps. when the “hell” of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. they lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. if someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.


the same mass dormancy was practiced in other chilly parts. in 1900, the british medical journal reported that peasants of the pskov region in northwestern russia “adopt the economical expedient” of spending one-half of the year in sleep: “at the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. ... the members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. after six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself” and “goes out to see if the grass is growing.”


it is unlikely this was hibernation in the zoological sense. while extreme cold might have set off a biological response normally seen only in squirrels, bears and marmots, human hibernation probably reflects a sensible, communal decision to stay in bed for as long as possible.
but the french seem to have been particularly sleepy. they “hibernated” even in temperate zones. in burgundy, after the wine harvest, the workers burned the vine stocks, repaired their tools and left the land to the wolves. a civil servant who investigated the region’s economic activity in 1844 found that he was almost the only living presence in the landscape: “these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. they weaken themselves deliberately.”


after the revolution, government officials complained that farmers were “abandoning themselves to dumb idleness,” instead of undertaking “some peaceful and sedentary industry.” income acted only as a deterrent. the people of beaucaire on the rhône made enough money at their summer fair to spend the rest of the year “smoking, playing cards, hunting and sleeping.”


until the 20th century, few people needed money. apart from salt and iron, everything could be paid for in kind. economic activity was more a means of making the time pass than of making money, which might explain why one of the few winter industries in the alps was clock-making. tinkering with tiny mechanisms made time pass less slowly, and the clocks themselves proved that it was indeed passing.


read the full article here.

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