AgriCulture: Warm Bedfellows and Other Sources of Heat

Do you “spoon” when you sleep with a spouse or bed partner?

Outside, the shutters may be banging against the house in the stiff western wind; the windows encased in white frost; the wind chill at minus 20. But inside, with another body close against yours under the covers, a warmth builds quickly. It’s as if the heat of the body is amplified by being bounced back and forth, the way mirrors can refract light and back and forth to intensify heat and light fires. And the benefits of spooning go beyond heat, to feelings of intimacy and protection. You might even feel secure enough to surrender that axe you keep next to your bed to dispatch intruders.

Spooning involves adjustments and compromises. If you’re the big spoon, does your bottom arm comfortably fit under your partner’s head or torso? If you’re the little spoon, is the hand of the top arm resting where you like having it? If one of you tosses, does the other turn, and how do you negotiate the frequency? You are surrendering considerable individual autonomy to sleep as a unit with another, so much so that I wonder whether the inclination to spoon correlates with political orientation. How much freedom are you willing to give up to gain those feelings of warmth and protection?

As many of you know from your pets, who will sleep with you given half the chance, animals too seek the warmth of other bodies at night. The last cat I shared a bed with remained draped over my feet, but when Lillie the dog is in my bed she seems to work her way up through the night until her head is resting on the pillow and she can herself be properly spooned.

Nor is the practice of group sleeping confined to animals that, sharing our homes, have human behavior as an example. I don’t know if evolutionary biologists have studied group sleeping as a cross-species phenomenon, but it’s pretty clear to me that the instinct to sleep à deux or en masse is shared across innumerable species and may be deeply engrained in our animal DNA.

Most of my chickens line up on their roosting bars right next to one another, though there’s ample room to spread out. Lambs will sleep with their mothers for months after they’re born and even weaned. If I were to arrive early enough in the morning, before the sheep rouse themselves, I’d see Sophie’s lamb, Chloe, nestled in alongside her mother, between the front and back legs, not far from Lale’s ram lamb with his mother, and so on, each little family unit in their own cluster.

Pigs go the sheep one better. Back when we had 30 or 35 pigs, we’d find groups of a dozen or more young ones sleeping piled up against one another, and not necessarily from the same mother or litter. On the coldest days, like the ones we’re experiencing right now, you could literally see steam arising from the heap. I’m sure there’s a social structure of sorts to these pile ups, such that one’s position in the heap correlates to some sort of dominance in the group. But it was always hard for me to tell whether it would be preferable to be under three other pigs or the one on the top. The top one might be exposed to cold air, but the steam from everyone below might provide sufficient warmth and it might be far easier to breathe up top.

Of course, not everyone has another creature to rub up against. Luckily, we humans have central heat, space heaters, hot water bottles, blankets, duvets, down comforters, and flannel pajamas, all doing their part to keep us cozy.

The animals, too, take an “all of the above” approach, enabling them to thrive in unheated shelters. They shield themselves from the wind by sleeping on the leeside of whatever structure they can take advantage of. The sheep will sometimes even sleep outside the barn, so long as the barn wall is protecting them from the wind, in order to catch the heat of the earliest sunrays in the morning from the southeast.

And animals build nests. Nests, made of leaves and/or twigs and/ or reeds, supply a sort of windbreak to nestle in. They create pockets where warm air can be trapped. The organic matter that constitutes the nest generates heat as it decomposes.

If you’ve been following these bulletins for a while, you know that our old boar, Vernon, died last summer, leaving our sow, Possum, with no companion to cuddle with. This fall, I noticed that Possum had built herself a nest about 200 to 300 feet back behind her pen in the pig pasture, and was spending any non-rainy nights back there rather than in her little south-facing hut. I felt concerned about her choice of sleeping place and wanted to lure her back to the hut. The only way I knew how to do that was to help her make a more attractive nest there.

On the lawns to the east of the house there are at least a dozen 8 to 10 feet tall stands of ornamental grasses, such as zebra grass and pampas grass, dotting the landscape. They give what the garden catalogues call “winter interest” until I generally cut them down in the spring. But trying to be economical and not buy straw, I decided that winter interest could give way this year to winter comfort. I began bringing down big sheaves of the grasses to Possum at feeding time.

Possum immediately knew what to do. She took the sheaves in her mouth and carried them back to the hut, carefully arranging them to create an attractive bed. I have continuously brought down additional piles of grasses for her to build up the nest, and she’s been sleeping there since. This morning, with the temperature barely above zero, she seemed perfectly comfortable there in the bright sunshine. Home heating, it seems, is a cross-species skill.

I’ve learned from the animals. If I were somehow stranded in the woods on a night like tonight, I would first off find a spot that is sheltered from the wind by structure or geology. Then I’d gather a mass of leaves and other organic matter to create a nest in the shelter. And finally, being a believer in “all of the above,” I’d search for a fellow traveler to keep me warm.



EGGS: $5/doz Limited supplies, which will increase as the hours of daylight do

FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WANT LAMB: There’s a backup of bookings at the slaughterhouse, almost impossible to get a slot, so it’s not imminent. I’ll let you know.


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