We have entered the micro-season of “The Bear Retreats To Its Den”. This is the first micro-season of the mini-season Major Snow. All the micro-seasons within Major Snow are:
- The Sky is Cold, Winter Comes (Dec.07 -Dec. 11)
- The Bear Retreats to its Den (Dec. 12 -Dec 16)
- The Salmon Gather to Spawn (Dec. 17 -Dec 21)
These seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai and are specific to Japan. However, just because the calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to others. No matter where you live you can use these seasons as a starting point for your personal exploration of the world around you.
To celebrate this season, we will learn about a bear’s winter survival strategies and then read some seasonal haiku from Basho, Shiki, and Issa.
Do Bears Hibernate During Winter?
Animals have adapted many strategies to survive the harsh winter conditions. Birds migrate south, some mammals grow thick coats of fur, and others find places to rest until the conditions improve. Bears are one of those animals that find a place to wait out the winter.
However, contrary to what you might have learned in grade school, bears are not true hibernators. True hibernation is when the “body temperature is close to 0° C (32° F); the respiration is only a few breaths per minute, and the heartbeat is so slow and gradual as to be barely perceptible.” (1) Very few mammals enter a state of true hibernation. Bats, woodchucks, and chipmunks are some of the common animals that enter true hibernation. Bears, on the other hand, enter a state known as torpor.
Torpor is similar to hibernation with a decreased breathing and heart rate, lower metabolic rate, and slightly lower body temperature. However, unlike true hibernation which is a voluntary process that lasts until the animal is exposed to warmer temperatures, torpor is involuntary and is often broken up by periods of activity. (2,3)
One of the benefits of torpor versus hibernation is that it is easier for an animal to emerge from its “sleeping” state. For animals in hibernation, it takes hours for them to wake.(2) Whereas, animals in torpor are able to awaken quickly if there is danger or the opportunity to feed. Bears also give birth during the winter.(4)This means that the mother bear needs to be able to care for her cubs while in the den.
In order to awaken from torpor, animals will shake and contract their muscles. This process, which looks a lot like shivering, warms the body and gets the blood moving.(3)
Where Do Bears Den?
During the summer months, bears scout out their possible den locations. Security and protection from the elements are a few of the factors that influence the den’s location. Bears may den in fallen logs, rock crevices, or caves. Bears may also dig into a hillside, under a brush pile, or under a fallen tree to create a den. Bears will often create a bed of leaves and debris within their den. (5,6,7)
Bears often head to their dens in December. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. Meghan McCarthy McPhaul explains in an article for Northern Woodlands,
“Bears will remain out and about as long as good food sources remain available. But once cold weather settles in and snow blankets the ground – or there’s simply nothing left to eat – they take to dens they’ve already prepared for the winter.”(6)
Pregnant bears are often the first ones to head to their dens. This is followed by bears with cubs and finally the male bears.
The World Kigo Database tells us that there are a few words and phrases that align with this micro-season. Winter seclusion, or fuyogomori, is probably the most relevant. Dr. Gabi Greve says “Animals like bears sleep through the whole cold season, also called fuyugomori.”(8) Other phrases associated with fuyugomori are “winter confinement”, “winter isolation”, or “wintering”.
With this season in mind, let’s read some haiku!
winter solitude — in a world of one color the sound of wind. (translated by Robert Hass)
anyway celebrate I will this winter hibernation with apricot blossoms in my heart. (translated by Takafumi Saito)
tired of Kyoto this withering wind and winter life (translated by Jane Reichhold)
splitting wood my sister alone - wintering (retreived from World Kigo Database)
early winter seclusion-- whose thin smoke over there? (translated by David G.Lanoue)
my sinful dog at my side... winter seclusion (translated by David G. Lanoue)
The next two haiku by Issa were found on the World Kigo Database. The translations and the commentary are attributed to David G. Lanoue.
the welcome bell tolls at the temple... winter seclusion (First version)
the death bell tolls at the temple... winter seclusion (Second version)
“Shinji Ogawa notes that the phrase o-mukae no kane (Issa’s variant: mukai no kane) means “welcome-bell” in the sense of welcoming the faithful to the next world, Amida Buddha’s Pure Land. I first translated it, “the welcome bell,” but Gabi Greve feels that this loses the sense of “someone waiting for his death.” She suggests: “funeral bells/ starting to toll” or “coming to get me/ the bell is tolling.” I have decided to go with “death bell,” and to include the word “temple” (not in Issa’s original text but certainly implied).”(8)
A Haiku Invitation
This week’s haiku invitation is to write a haiku or senryu that references hibernation or winter seclusion.
Share your haiku in the comments below, or post on your own page and link back to this post. I can’t wait to read what you write!
- “Hibernation”; Britannica.com
- “Snug in the Snow”; Environmental Education for Kids
- Chris Bachman; “Do Bears Really Hibernate” National Forest Foundation.
- “Black Bears”; National Park Service
- “Winter Dens”; Bear.org
- “Bears Make Their Bed”; NorthernWoodlands.org
- “Bear Den Locations May Surprise You”; BearWise.org
- “Winter seclusion (fuyugomori)”; World Kigo Database
Basho’s haiku were retrieved from the World Kigo Database and “Matsuo Bashō’s haiku poems in romanized Japanese with English translations” editor: Gábor Terebess. Issa’s and Shiki’s haiku were retrieved from the World Kigo Database.