Meditations on Stick Season

I’m not sure if I can still call this “stick season,” since snow has lain on the ground for a week now. The most accurate definition of stick season is the period of time between the fall of the last golden leaves and the fall of the first sparkling snow. It’s not really a season at all – just a week or two between late October and early November, a time when the view out our windows displays only grey sticks against the grey sky.

But early this morning as the sun was rising and I was feeding the baby, I couldn’t see the icy snow on the ground; all I could see were the bare branches of the aspen trees outside my window.

I’ve been teaching my daughters about the human body this year, and what I noticed about those bare trees was that they looked just like inverted versions of two bodily systems: the circulatory system, and the nervous system. The veins and arteries that carry blood throughout our bodies, and the nerves that relay messages around our bodies – both of these systems resemble the branching of trees, with smaller branches reaching out from larger ones. I marveled at nature’s efficiency; whether in plant or in animal, this beautiful branching design is the best way of delivering nutrients and information where they need to go.

Reflecting upon the efficiency of branches took my mind in a more literary direction, since this past month our family has been enjoying the memoirs Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes, by siblings Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Gilbreth, Jr. These books depict life in the Gilbreth family in the early 1900s. Parents Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had twelve children, and were known professionally as “efficiency experts;” their Motion Study method was used to develop standards for more efficient workplaces. The Gilbreths applied principles of efficiency at home as well: For instance, the Gilbreth children were divided into various household management committees, and were encouraged to listen to foreign language records while in the bath to make the most of an otherwise unproductive time.

Trees are efficient, our bodies are efficient, and the Gilbreth family was efficient. But, as the rising sun illuminated those bare branches, my mind came full circle back to my own home. These days our house and our family are best defined by our inefficiency.

To start with, there’s a new baby in our house. The baby needs to be fed every two hours, and cared for in various ways all of the hours in between. This drastically reduces the efficiency of the exhausted parents, who are reduced to cramming whatever is necessary for basic survival into what little time is not being (literally) eaten up by the baby. And while our overall household efficiency might be improved somewhat since this baby has four adoring big sisters who want to help hold and feed him constantly, the ensuing bickering over who gets to hold the baby and for how long is a further drain on efficiency.

On top of that, I’ve been battling a nasty upper respiratory virus for the past week. I’ve recently heard this virus referred to around town as “The Thing,” as in: “Don’t get too close! I have ‘The Thing!’” The Thing is no fun, although it does provide variety as it rotates between sore throat, congestion, and hacking cough (all against a backdrop of extreme exhaustion.) So, what little efficiency I might have retained from the baby is being eaten up by my immune system.

And as if nature itself was conspiring against us, the year’s first snow fell – and stuck. My daughters have immeasurably more energy than my husband or myself, but once the snow is on the ground, do they want to use that energy in efficient pursuits like studying the human bodily systems? No! They just want to go outside and sled. When we’re not outside, we’re clustered around the wood stove – and nothing kills efficiency like a wood stove on a cold, dark winter’s evening.

These days, I can tell you what’s not being done, what’s not being cleaned, what’s not being read, what’s not being learned. It takes us 30 minutes to get out the door, and just as long to get everyone to the dinner table. Frank Gilbreth would be appalled.

But stick season reveals something else: When the leaves fall off the branches, we can see the nests that were there all along, hidden behind green foliage throughout spring and summer.

So although branches are efficient at keeping a tree alive, they provide an unintentional, less efficient service: While nutrients flow constantly underneath, a bird or squirrel finds a hospitable branch and begins the laborious process of constructing a nest from found materials. It will lay eggs in that nest and spend a great deal of time doing things that look pretty unproductive: sitting on those eggs and feeding the babies that hatch from them.

Supporting life is not always efficient. Sometimes we are the branches, ferrying nutrients and information far and wide. But sometimes we’re the nest sitters. This, then, may be my own stick season of sorts, no less necessary or worthwhile for being bare and brief.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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