This series began with childhood memories of chilly winter nights. As a kid, I remember how the cold seemed to contract around you, drawing you closer to loved ones, making your world seem small enough to hold in the palm of your hand... There was a comfort in having nowhere to go and nothing to do, but also a restlessness and excitement to know that outside, a winter storm was raging.
Birches have long been a symbol of new beginnings -- they're a pioneer species, one of the first to regrow in an area after a natural disaster, and their bark contains oils that make it especially good for kindling life-giving fires in the hearth (and heart) during the coldest, darkest months of the year.
We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.
But when we're not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.
When it comes to questions of how to respond to the cultural demand to "honor the soldiers who died for you," I find that the problem is not so much that I do not want to comply, but that I literally do not know how. Assuming, of course, that our honor and memory should take a form other than silent complicity in the continuing violence and militarism of our government — what should my honor look like?
"It's funny how family can bring you back to yourself because they know you so well and for so long, they treat you as if you were always just the same. Which is exactly what can drive you out of yourself, too, after a while. Because of course, you're not."
It has happened again. In fact, it is still happening, even now. If not here, then somewhere, in this country, in this world. There is almost no end to it. There is almost no space between one moment and the next, between the pain and the noise it makes.
What do we do now?
Some modern Druids and Celtic polytheists celebrate Samhain on the day of the first frost. And so the first morning in autumn that I wake up to find the land crisp with crystallized mist clinging to each blade of grass, edging each fallen leaf... that is a sacred morning.
It's a quiet, foggy morning here in Seattle, and I'm thinking about ontology — the philosophical study of the nature of existence. There is something deeply dissatisfying about a choice between reductionism and hierarchy, for both seem to me equally wrong. Although in naturalistic philosophy hierarchy no longer needs the divine sanction of a god to justify it, the supremacy of human culture and human consciousness remains unchallenged, the assumed pinnacle of evolution, with the masses of quarks, quasars, oak trees and elephants relegated to the same old mindlessness of mere objects, only so much stuff.
But rather than go into any more detailed analysis of these dense and sometimes unwieldy philosophies, instead I want to talk a little bit about fog...
Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species, by Freeman House, is a meandering journey through the natural history of the Mattole River watershed in northern California, with particular focus on humanity's changing relationship with one of its keystone inhabitants, the Pacific salmon. The structure of the book in many ways mirrors the homeward journey of the salmon itself, from the depths of a shared ocean of experience back towards the headwaters rising from the heart of a unique landscape. I picked up this book hoping to brush up on some of my fishy facts and local history, but what I discovered was a story with a great deal more to give. House is a beautiful storyteller as well as an experienced conservationist, and his work reflects not only the careful eye and practical mind of a hands-on community activist, but also the raw heart and brutal honesty of someone madly in love with the natural world.
For me, Salmon has claimed her place along the year's wheel at Samhain-tide. The salmon run at Piper's Creek begins by the first day of November and lasts as late as the winter solstice. It is a time of cool, steady rain, a time of death and consummation. It is the in-between time, just after the Celtic New Year, but before the dawn of lengthening days. A time when new life begins in the dark, buried beneath the gravel of the streambed, invisible and silent.
I think in many ways, modern Paganism is in this twilight time before rebirth as well. Seeded and kept alive from generation to generation after two millennia of broken traditions and scattered, assimilated cultures. We strive to root our traditions in the land, in a sense of place and in the presence of earth, but the social systems upstream don't make it easy.