This time of year, some atavistic bit of genetic code kicks in. My energy level drops, projects go on hold, the garden is laid to rest with relief – its own and mine. Inevitably, some wise-mouth calls this, “Winter blahs.”
Oh, sure, blame Winter – there couldn’t be anything wrong with civilization, could there?
Except perhaps that we still tolerate this clock-changing foolishness. It’s been called proof that we’re a law-abiding nation, that twice a year, we allow our precious rest to be disrupted by Daylight Savings Time.
Even in childhood, time-change didn’t appeal to me. On October afternoons, my school bus was greeted by excited squawks from the hens – “Girls! There’s our waitress!” – convinced it was suppertime at 4PM.
Farmers have more to deal with than impatient chickens. Dad commuted to his day job in the dark anyway. Chores were never finished, so the extra hour of sleep was a fiction. “Extra hour? Nuts! It’s like a tax refund – they’re only giving you back what they took.” And just when farm work got busy in Spring, the town boss expected him an hour earlier.
Aunt Esther’s annual tart comment must have influenced my thinking. “Mr Roosevelt’s idea!” Time hadn’t mellowed her much toward Franklin Roosevelt, ten years in his grave, or his politics. “To give the working man more leisure time!” It was clear that the working man already had as much leisure time as was good for him, and given more, would probably get into mischief. We imagined city idlers lounging around their doorsteps, while us virtuous country folk finished our chores and slept the sleep of the just.
Mother was more pragmatic, if not cynical: “It’s really for the merchants – they think we’ll spend more money if we stay up later.” Heh-heh, we thought, not Mom!
Now that a mere 4% of the population produces all our country’s food, no one is likely to abandon DST just for the sake of farmers. But we aren’t the only ones put out by it. Hospital patients receive precisely timed medications, including some powerful drugs. Their nurses have to advance or delay doses 5 or 10 minutes a day, for a few weeks before and after time change. Sleep-disorder sufferers start adjusting their alarm clocks as much as a month ahead. Sleep therapists stress the benefits of waking regularly, but people take a lot of persuading to get up at 6AM on weekends. It’s adding insult to injury, having to listen to some AM radio jock blabbing about sleeping late.
Sleep specialists make a good point: our sleep rhythms vary with the time of year. Even people without sleep disorders need more sleep in winter than summer.
Thank you, doctor! Say that again! People need more sleep in winter than summer!
We sleep or wake because our bodies’ own natural sedatives or stimulants make us drowsy or alert. Blood levels of those hormones fluctuate seasonally with – what? Day length! In some animals it’s enough to trigger hibernation. Natural light, through the optic nerve, cues the pituitary to produce serotonin. When nights lengthen, melatonin accumulates, making us drowsier.
This elegant device of Nature attunes organisms to sleep more during cold, dark Winters, when food is scarce and foraging is risky. Mammal physiology has had millions of years to adjust to the seasons. Now we think we can disregard them, because cheap electricity turns night to day, and abundant food allows us to take for granted the biological basis of our existence.
People work even longer hours in Winter, when outdoor activity is limited, than in summer. They shop and party more, mostly under artificial light. If your body has the sense to slow down, you’re told you have “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Disorder? Who says it’s a disorder? The problem isn’t that the days are short, it’s that we insist on acting as if they’re still long.
Farmers, more attuned to the seasons, find Winter worse in some ways. Traditionally, it was slowdown time, but not in today’s economics. We’re outdoors as much as our day jobs allow, but shifting an hour of daylight to morning doesn’t help. In fact, we’ve always thought it made more sense the other way around.
But at the end of the school day, as the slamming of my truck door is met with cheerful nickers & bleats from up at the fence – “Hey, guys! It’s the Food Lady!” – I have to ask, “Can’t we just leave the clocks alone?”