Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December Darkness

Note: This program first aired on December 20, 2014.

It’s December in Maine, and I know people who hate this time of year, people who struggle with the darkness. People who utter a quiet little curse at the summer solstice when the days start to get imperceptibly shorter, and wail and gnash their teeth out loud at the fall equinox when the balance tips in favor of the night. For them the winter solstice means hitting rock bottom, with only the faintest brightness that from here on out for the next 6 months, the days start getting longer.

I have to admit publically, and I may lose some friends for this, that I love this time of year. I love waking up in the dark, and burrowing in to home and hearth in the late afternoon. I love the long nights and late mornings. The pace of modern life is so mismatched to the natural seasonal rhythms here at the 44th parallel, we rush off to work in the morning, stay until late afternoon, come home after sun down. Of course the long nights and short days feel untenable. But if you can give your self the mental space to touch base with your inner self, call it your ancestral self, I think you will find, as I have, that these long nights serve a purpose. Your body knows what it is.

As the days grow shorter in the late fall, I have a harder time going out to run. I start thinking about yoga instead, and I restart my meditation practice. I stop eating salad, and instead roast root vegetables by the pan full. I do this because it is what feels right, because I trust the ancestral knowledge in my cells, because my body evolved with seasonal patterns, and the past 150 years of human evolution (or lack thereof) hasn’t erased them.

If you look around the natural world for cues this time of year, every one of them will tell you to settle down, to rest up, to wait. Deciduous trees draw their sap down underground and wait out dry and the cold of winter. Many mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects spend this time in a state of suspended animation, living off the bounty of summer, waiting for the next productive season to come. In learning to embrace winter I do not suggest truly hibernating, or hardening yourself against the cold; instead use this time as a resource. Nature bids us inside, and provides us with quiet. Take these moments to rest your self and let your mind settle, these moments are fleeting and rare in our modern lives. One of the reasons we find the holidays so stressful is that we’ve let them become a time of arousal and glitter, parties and over indulgence instead of reflection. Everyone I know who celebrates Christmas tells me the same story; their favorite thing is to sit quietly in their living room looking at the lit up Christmas tree, the rest of the lights off, families asleep. Silent night indeed.  We are seeds, waiting in the frozen soil, we are chipmunks resting in our burrows, we are chickadees flying at day break, we are wood frogs frozen in the leaf litter, we are white tailed deer yarding up in a cedar swamp, we are humans negotiating an increasingly complex world here half way between the equator and the pole.

We’re coming up fast on the Winter Solstice, the moment when the Earth’s axis of rotation points us in the northern hemisphere as directly away from the sun as possible. It will be another 6 weeks or so before we notice that the days are getting longer, at about that time the plants will start to notice too. In the mean time, stoke up the fire, turn off the lights and plug in your Christmas tree, or light a candle or look out at the stars and the moon. Take this dark time for what it is, a gift not a curse. Happy solstice everyone.



Note: This program first aired December 13, 2014.
The more I read and the more I see, the more I’ve been feeling lately, that my life is increasingly irrelevant in this world. Or better put, the way I live is increasingly irrelevant. I feel that the world has rushed by eastern Maine, or hurtled past, perhaps when I had my head down weeding carrots in the garden, or while I was in the wood shed stacking firewood, and I am just now noticing, feeling the pull of the vortex created when all that energy and technology blew by.

Currently more than half of the people in the world live in cities, and that trend is expected to continue, by 2050, more than 66 % of people world wide will be living in urban areas. In North America alone 82% of people live in cities, the highest percentage in the world, which is probably why I feel this irrelevancy so acutely. I feel like I live in the land time forgot. Just to be clear, I know that by global standards, eastern Maine is not the land time forgot. We have power and plumbing and the interweb and all that, but by America standards we are a quiet and aging back water in a country that worships youth and speed and technology.

I feel irrelevant when I hear yet another story on the radio about how awesome Copenhagen is, with its high standard of living, its elevated bike paths, or its green roofs. Or how Helsinki is getting rid of cars, or about the latest apps for ordering pizza to be delivered at the push of a button and the calendar that learns your daily routine and suggests ways to save time during the day. When I go into a city I feel overwhelmed, astonished to be reminded just how many people there are on this planet, how many lives are being lived simultaneously. I wonder where the food comes from, where the heat comes from, where the water goes.

And at the same time I am feeling irrelevant, another feeling rises up in me, one that says that not only I am not irrelevant, but that my way of life is exactly the opposite, it’s the most relevant thing you can be doing right now.  When I get home from work, my house is cold. To get it warm, I have to start a fire. To start a fire, I have to bring in wood. Wood from trees my husband cut down around our house and our neighborhood. Much of the food I eat grew in earth I have nurtured. I fed and watered the chickens and ducks and pig that fill my freezer. I can see the path my survival takes from earth to warmth and fullness, and I play an integral role in it. To me this seems perfectly relevant, this life filled with details of natural rhythms and sunset, moonrise, snow fall.

In having this feeling rising inside me I am not alone. There’s a movement out there, gaining steam, changing lives. Its called Rewilding, a term borrowed from conservation biology. In its original context it referred to restoring chopped up urban and suburban landscapes and connecting those landscapes on large scale levels, to ensure that high trophic level predators would have enough connected habitat to survive and thrive. In the human context it means taking actions to connect your self back to the natural world and your own survival. It includes hard core survivalists preparing for the zombie apocalypse, primitive skills aficionados, herbalists, botanists and edible landscape enthusiasts, and soccer dads making tea from the flowers in the back yard. Every action counts, this is a big tent kind of a thing.

Some will critique this as a first world issue, though the most rapid 21rst century urbanization will be taking place in the global south, and it isn’t clear exactly what economic opportunities that rapid urban migration will yield, as most of that expansion will come in the form of urban slums with no services. Others may say that I am speaking from a place of privilege, and it is true, on a global scale, I am incredibly privileged, and I am using that privilege as a soap box to stand on to call it like I see it. Any actions you can take to be connected to or aware of natural rhythms and the unbreakable laws of nature will improve your life in ways you may not understand at first. You can do this in a city, you can do this in the country. Here in the land time forgot, rewilding is sort of a no brainer. Its not even re-wilding, many of us never got that domesticated to begin with.

The UN World Urbanization Prospects 2014

A sample of the human rewilding movement popping up in this country:

The calendar that “learns how you do thing and suggests ways to make you better”