It takes a lot of work to survive winter. It takes a lot of gear, a lot of preparations. Buying salt for the driveway, buying kitty litter for our trunks. Making sure there’s blankets and flashlights and bottled water in the car in case we’re stuck in a drift or the car won’t start when it’s below freezing.

By Jennifer Furner 

My green rubber boots sink in the soft earth. The grass is vibrant, nearly neon and is tangled with wet brown leaves that rustle but don’t crunch. As I march through the lawn, I pick up my feet higher than needed because I like the squishing sound.

It’s October and not quite cold enough to see my breath. I don’t even zip up the down vest I’m wearing, but I stuff my tender hands, not yet weathered for the approaching winter’s dryness, in its lined pockets. I feel the chill that rests comfortably under my nose, touching my top lip. I sense the slightest drip on the edge of my nostril.

My three-year-old daughter runs through the yard in many layers – a short-sleeved dress, a long-sleeved zip-up hoodie, a down vest (like her mama’s), long leggings, socks. It takes multiple requests to get her to dress appropriately. Every morning, she says, “Don’t want to wear pants.”

I regretfully inform her that summer is over, that it’s too cold for shorts, that this is the season we’re in now; there will be no going back, not for a while.

She resists the change, as do we all.

Her father and I carry her playhouse to the shed. She follows alongside, stopping to point at the bare bushes. “No more blackberries,” she says.

“No more blackberries, not until next year,” I confirm.

My husband shuffles around the shed contents, pushing the patio table to the side, nudging the lawn mower against the wall to make room for the playhouse. My leg brushes the fire pit that we never got around to using this summer. These items will sleep here in the dark until spring when the doors open and the light comes in again.

Dusk is already settling in, even though we have yet to make dinner. My husband scrubs the grill with a wire brush. There is just enough room left for it in the shed. My daughter hops on her trampoline, worn from a summer of sun and rain and constant use. Her blonde curls hang in the air a second longer than her body. Her cheeks are starting to turn a bright pink.

“I think it’s time to go in,” I tell her.

“Don’t want to go in,” she answers.

“I know. But it’s getting cold and dark out here.”

“Want to stay outside.”

She wants summer to last forever. She wants playgrounds and swimming pools and to run through the tall wet grass. I want that, too.

But I also want this. The brisk air. The cold hands. The warm vests. The soft twilight of a world slowing down, of a world going to sleep.

As I turn and head back toward the deck, I see a burst of orange against the green grass. A woolly bear caterpillar is doing what we’re doing, taking one last look at the world it knows and heading off to hunker down through the long winter.


The Woolly Bear Festival happens every October in Vermillion, Ohio. When I was in high school, our band boarded a school bus and drove two and a half hours south just so we could march in the festival’s parade. Afterwards, we got to enjoy the party. People stood in line to get tattoos of woolly bears airbrushed on their arms, their backs, their bald heads. They cheered on their favorite caterpillar in the woolly bear races. They drank beer out of plastic cups and ate French fries out of paper cups and danced to the live music. It was one last hurrah before the leaves fell, the air turned cold.

People celebrate the woolly bear because they believe they can predict the winter based on the width of its stripes.

Midwesterners are obsessed with predicting the winter. We want something to tell us that it will be a mild winter (though it rarely is). We want to know if there will be enough snow to bother getting the sleds out of the shed, buying a snow plowing service, taking off the regular tires on our cars and replacing them with snow tires. Do we really need to put plastic on our windows this year? It’s such a pain.

It takes a lot of work to survive winter. It takes a lot of gear, a lot of preparations. Buying salt for the driveway, buying kitty litter for our trunks. Making sure there’s blankets and flashlights and bottled water in the car in case we’re stuck in a drift or the car won’t start when it’s below freezing.

As my husband and I sneak under the flannel sheets and the heavy blankets at night, the cold still stinging the small of our backs, our unprotected toes, we wonder aloud, “Why do we still live here?”


A woolly bear caterpillar hatches from its egg in the fall and leaves its sustenance of green weeds in order to look for dead leaves or logs in which to hibernate. Over winter, it will essentially freeze to death: its heart stops beating and its blood stops flowing, pausing its life until the spring thaw. In the spring, they’ll awaken, only then to wrap themselves in a cocoon and melt into a sludge of cells, essentially dying yet again, until those cells rearrange and it emerges as an Isabella tiger moth.

They are born so they can die so they can be born again so they can die again so they can be born again and then, finally, die for real.

In the fall, we often see woolly bear caterpillars crossing our walking paths. I wonder how they know where to go. What kind of qualities does one looks for when choosing a place to freeze to death? It sounds like a bad joke. Why did the woolly bear caterpillar cross the road? To find a place to die.

Of course, they don’t really die when they hibernate. Their body produces cryoprotectants, which allow them to wake up relatively unscathed come spring.

But throughout the winter, their hearts aren’t beating, their blood isn’t flowing. That sounds like dead to me.


Michigan doesn’t have a woolly bear festival. But we should. Most people I know would like to pause their lives until winter passes. It’s tempting to just sleep until spring comes again.

But unlike the woolly bear, we don’t have that option. Everything is dead and covered in snow, but we are still alive. We still have places to go. We can’t let the cold stop us.

As much as we lament its bitter cold and icy roads, winter is also a whole new world to wake up to. It’s a different kind of life, one with sledding and skiing and snowshoeing, one of hot chocolate and snowmen and twinkle lights.

Winter isn’t our favorite, but we don’t let the cold freeze who we are. We adapt.


Every spring, our local botanical garden has a butterfly exhibit. They ship in all different types of species – Emperor Swallowtail, Tiger Longwing, the stunning Blue Morpho. They have a caterpillar room that, at first glance, looks like any other garden room, lilies and tulips lining the perimeter. But if you get on the floor and look under the leaves, caterpillars hide, munch, transform into bright green chrysalises. March is too early to see them in the wilds of Michigan, when most of the state’s soil is still frozen underfoot.

In addition to the caterpillar room, there is the conservatory, a tall, glassed-in jungle where breadfruit tree leaves dangle and stick to my hair with their Velcro-like texture. Massive banana tree leaves filter out the sun, tinting the room with a green glow. It is a balmy 85 degrees with 75 percent humidity, the exact opposite from the 30-degree weather outside, and my arm sweats generously where my down coat drapes over it. My cheeks, first red with the sting of winter cold, are now red again as the tropical climate of the conservatory warms them.

It’s not natural, this quick change from cold to hot, but it’s one I’m used to as a Michigander, where spring days can start below freezing and but warm up to a comfortable 60 degrees by lunch time. Michigan can experience all four seasons in one day, we joke. It’s a joke, but it’s also true.

Amelia chases after the butterflies with her finger stuck out, thinking that if she gets close enough, a butterfly will want to land on it. I explain to her that she must be still for a butterfly to find her tiny finger at all appealing, but she’s not interested in that. Like the butterflies, she’s constantly flittering around, impossible to catch.

Just like her patience, her attention doesn’t last long. If she’s seen one butterfly, she’s seen them all, is the attitude she seems to take. I, on the other hand, could stay in there all day, enjoying all the movement in the room, all the life.

When we head for the exit, I have a hard time convincing Amelia to put her coat back on. She’s just been blasted into summer and doesn’t want to go back into the harsh Michigan spring.

Once outside in the parking lot, I’m astounded by the lack of movement in the air, the lack of life.


The arrival of butterflies and caterpillars at the gardens gives us hope that winter is on its way out. And Michiganders embrace spring at its earliest sign. The winters are harsh and long, so when it gets above freezing, we break out the flip-flops and go play outside.

I remember one particular 60-degree day in March. Piles of snow still loitered in parking lots and front yards while people in short-sleeved shirts walked their dogs.

On that day, I found myself near my college alma mater with a few minutes to spare, so I turned on the main drive and drove through the campus. I passed the soccer fields. The snow on the faux turf had been scraped to the side so the bright green “grass” was enclosed by an ice wall. Students in shorts kicked the ball to and fro.

I went by the golf course. The women’s team was out on the driving range in skirts, their uncovered legs disappearing behind snowbanks, their golf balls forever lost among the leftover white. Through my rolled-down car window, I laughed out loud at the absurdity.


When the weather warms enough and the frozen woolly bears thaw, they quickly cocoon and transform into moths. The moths mate and lay eggs in May. From what I understand, the caterpillars from those eggs don’t have to endure the harsh winter. They grow and cocoon and transform into moths, who then lay their eggs in August. It’s this second round of eggs that hatch as the weather cools, these baby caterpillars who eat for two months straight before venturing off for a place to hibernate, a place to temporarily die.

When I learned this, I wondered why I never see woolly bears squirming through the grass in the early summer, but I suppose they don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t need to find a place to winter; they’ll be a moth long before then. They probably stay in one place for their lifecycle, devouring the vegetation where they are, cocooning under it later. What an easy life compared to the later brood.

I never see tiger moths in the summertime, which makes sense, since they are nocturnal and, as a parent of a young child, I’m in bed before the sun fully sets in the summer.

Even though the fall woolly bears have a more difficult life, have to die more times than their spring relatives, they do at least have a life. They travel away from their hatching place, and they see the world in light. They transform one way and then they transform another way. They know more than just one pile of leaves or the same black sky. They adapt.


Whenever Amelia asks to go play outside, I always check the weather on my phone first. Just because it’s sunny through the window does not mean that it’s warm. When the forecast finally shows a string of days where the temperature will be above 60, we’ll open up the shed doors and reverse the process we took the previous fall: carry the playhouse back to its spot of matted grass, roll the grill in place next to the deck, bring out the patio furniture. Amelia will watch us as she bounces on her trampoline, her hair longer and less curly now, her bounce a little deeper with the extra weight and height gained over the winter. Unlike the woolly bear caterpillar, her body was not frozen; she has grown the last few months.

As she collects dandelion heads and forsythia twigs, we’ll grab the snow shovels, the roof rake, and the sleds from the garage and haul them into the shed, where they’ll hide in the dark all summer until we need them again.

Jennifer Furner is a life-long Michigander who grew up in Monroe County and settled in Kent County. She has been published in HuffPost, Mslexia, and Sledgehammer Lit, among others. For more of her writing, visit her website