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.
"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."
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.
They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but that's only half the truth.
In the face of our assembly-line obsession with efficiency and expendability, keystone species like mistletoe serve as powerful reminders of why individuality is so essential to abundance. True prosperity lies in the diversity of our communities and the ways that we support that diversity with our own unique gifts. It can be lonely, even a little frightening, to be different. But nature is messy. Nature is wild...
Snowshoeing opens up possibilities for exploration that ordinary hiking can't. With a sturdy pair of snowshoes and eight feet of snow, winter is the perfect time to rise above ordinary obstacles and move deeper into the heart of the forest.
To walk is itself a kind of ritual, a practice that changes us in subtle and significant ways. To move through the land, we have to be attentive and responsive to it. To survive these cold months, it's not enough to stay hunched in front of our computer screens all day long theorizing and debating. We must become apprentices of this goddess, Winter — to truly know her and her work, we must go out to meet her beneath the trees.
There is ice in old Earth Mother's blood these days, and everywhere the ground is as hard as unyielding stone. The winds are biting cold. The sunlight, though still low on the horizon, is bright and sharp. It glints off the edges of every surface, refracted, scattered in a thousand directions. I sit in the shadow of a great evergreen tree outside, struggling to root, straining to bring the manic energies back into balance.
The whole world seems to be cold fire and frenzied air.
This won't do. I have to find another way...
As Christmas approaches once again, I find myself wondering, wandering in a liminal space. Asking myself how to teach children that realizing their own inner Santa Claus is infinitely more challenging than believing in some unlikely literal jolly-old-elf, and infinitely more rewarding. Asking myself where I belong, where we all belong, and how we belong to each other. Asking myself how I can tell the stories of my ancestors, pagan and Christian alike, to the children of my partner. What can I say that will be meaningful and relevant for them, that will share with them the "spirit of the season" that I have come to know and love and value? What will I say when they come singing, a penny for my thoughts?
Not all of our companions will elbow their way into our lives and demand our attention. Some of them linger beyond the limits of our ordinary experiences, leaving only footprints and snapped twigs as traces of their presence. These are our guides to the depths of mystery and wilderness. They are dark wanderers who cross our paths only in the obscurity of a moonless night, whose form we seem to see only just on the periphery of our vision before it dissolves again into the tangled undergrowth of the unknown. They are the companions whose presence we sense with the thrill of uncertainty, that mixture of excitement and terror that gives rise to awe. Their breath is the sound on the edge of hearing that we catch just when we think we are alone.
Lest we forget that nature is not only familiar and intimate, but deeply wild and strange. Lest we forget that some things are hidden, and will remain hidden.
The bear is, for me, this kind of companion.
Christmas eve night, about nine o'clock. Basket slung over one arm and bumping into my hip with every step, I trudge through the snow. The ribbon wound around the basket's slim handle glistens in a hint of milky moonlight, gold thread woven in elaborate patterns through the deep red cloth. In the basket, a red pillar candle and two tapers — scented "seasonal berry" — jostle in a nest of intertwined greens, bits of douglas fir and blue spruce smelling sweetly of bent needles and dried sap; wedged among them, the frankincense sticks, the crystal bowl full of dark sunflower seeds and dried cranberries, the small jar of spring water decorated with silvery snowflake designs and curled bits of blue string. The snow crunches as I feel my way along the un-shoveled path through the park, some of it falling onto the tops of my moccasin-like shoes and slipping down inside to melt against bare skin.