As the summer winds down and we begin to prepare for the winter, I think about wildlife making their preparations. Bears are busy eating for as many as 20 hours a day to fatten up for their winter sleep. Squirrels and many other year-round residents of the region are gathering and stockpiling food to eat once the snow covers the ground. Every year at this time, thoughts turn to survival and every species has a specific strategy. Our preparations may include trading summer clothes for parkas and long-johns, and maybe storing up food and firewood.
People throughout the world have different cultural practices to prepare them for this dark and cold season. There is considerable of overlap of traditions among cultures that live in regions with cold winters. Since the time of the Ancient Romans, there are reports of bringing nature inside during the cold and dark months to cheer people up. People have always been aware of the curative powers of nature on the human soul. This may be why I buy my wreath as soon as I see one in the store and keep it on my wall until April. As animals, we feel our deep connections to nature and attempt to capture this feeling in our homes.
During my winter preparations, I am reminded of the longest continuous residents of Colorado, the Utes, and the lessons we can learn from them. We have records of seven Ute bands living in the Eagle Valley as early as 1300 AD. The Utes originally sought shelter in this mountainous area in order to avoid the more aggressive plains tribes. Although the mountains provided protection from these other tribes, the climate in this region made life for the Utes very hard. In order to adapt to the harsh environment of the mountains, the Utes were nomadic, meaning they traveled to different locations throughout the seasons. Bands would break up into family groups to gather food in the spring through the fall. Before the 1600s the family groups would follow the same circuit each year, journeying up into the alpine meadows and forests to gather food, even planting a few crops in the meadows to harvest in the fall. In late fall, the bands would gather together in the valleys to seek shelter from the harsh winter. During this time, the Utes had many dances, festivals and parties. One of these dances was the Bear Dance in early spring, where the Utes showed respect for the spirit of the bear, which makes one strong and would lead the family groups to food. The Utes worship several deities and every living thing has a spirit. They believe everything comes from the sun and are very thankful and respectful of nature. The ecosystem of this region was the Ute’s bank account, guaranteeing them resources for the next year.
Just like the Utes, we depend on the Earth for our survival. While we as a culture value security in monetary form, we are still tied to nature for our most basic needs. Even though we have mastered the skills required to survive the harsh withers of the Colorado Rockies, this lifestyle is still fueled by natural resources which must be managed properly if they are to be here for our children to use. Our heat comes from natural resources and our food in its most basic form comes from the ground. We still must breathe clean air and drink clean water. The Utes learned that the key to their survival was sustainably harvesting food and resources from the land around them, always leaving enough for next year. My hope is that as we hunker down for the winter and celebrate the summer’s bounty we give thanks to the Earth for sustaining us and learn to use our resources more thoughtfully.
The author, Jessica Foulis, is a winter naturalist for Walking Mountains Science Center. The new science and nature center is open in Avon, M-Sat 10am – 6pm. Admission is free to the public.