Wintering

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Here in Devon, we're on the cusp of spring (daffodils in the woods, new lambs in fields, wild Dartmoor ponies beginning to foal), but I'm reading a book about about winter right now and finding it full of interest. Wintering by Katherine May explores the winter season metaphorically (as a symbol for those hard times in life that I refer to as the Dark Forest), as well as the actuality of winter as it is experienced in northern climes. She weaves her meditations on the cold and dark with a personal memoir about her own period of  "wintering," when illness in her family -- first her husband's, and then her own -- shook every foundation they had built their lives on.

"There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world," May writes, "and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somwhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can't quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards."

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"Everybody winters at one time or another," she explains; "some winter over and over again.

"Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of the outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness; perhaps from a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humilation or failure. Perhaps you're in a period of transition, and have temporararily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of care responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.

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"Yet it's also inevitable. We'd like to imagine it's possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of equatorial habits, forever close to the sun; an endless, unvarying high season. But life's not like that. Emotionally, we're prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if, by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck, we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn't avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in....

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"In our relentlessly busy contemporary world, we are forever trying the defer the onset of winter. We don't ever dare to feel its full bit, and we don't dare to show the way that it ravages us. A sharp wintering, sometimes, would do us good. We must stop believing that these times in our life are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite winter in."

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That's what her new book is about, May says: "learning to recognize the process, engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how."

I recommend this wise and beautiful text for those going through their own wintering...which I expect may be a lot of us now, facing the life-altering consequences imposed by a global pandemic.

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As the Great Wheel turns from winter to spring, I've been contemplating my own winterings and the gifts they have given me, over and over. Those gifts are going to be useful now as we cope with unimaginable challenges ahead. Eager for springtime's warmth and sun, I celebrate each flower, each lamb, each foal affirming the steady turning of the seasons....

But I'm also grateful for the dark and cold, and the lessons of slowness, of quiet, of healing.

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Wintering by Katherine May

Words: The passage above is from Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by English novelist/memoirist Katherine May (Penguin/Random House, 2020). The poem in the picture captions is from Fugitive Colours by Scottish poet Liz Lochhead (Polygon, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, many of them pregnant with this year's foals. I love encountering them on walks with Tilly, grazing on the village Commons and roaming the hills behind my studio.


Art, culture, and radical hope

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In The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming asks:

"What is civilization? Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

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At this point in modernity, Deming writes,

"one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

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"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

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In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

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Seven decades later, Terry Tempest Williams reflected on those words:

"I think about Rilke, who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

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Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The path to the village Commons on a recent frosty morning.


Following the bear

The White Bear King by Theodor Kittelsen

As the old year ends, and a new one begins, and the grey winter months roll on and on, I find myself think of bears -- and of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about bears as symbols of life held in balance.

For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Dream Basket by Susan Seddon Boulet

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Brown bear and cubs

Bear Mother by Jackie Morris

"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

The Snow Maiden by Edmund Dulac

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Father Bear Comes Home by Maurice Sendak and Bear Dancer by Susan Seddon Boulet

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

Bearskin by Trina Schart Hyman and East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Liga Klavina

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

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The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Bear stories

It's a good time of year to be reading about bears -- in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and myth. The bearish tales above are three of my favourites, along with Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsals, Judith Berman's Bear Daughter, and Marion Engle's strange but compelling Bear. What are some of yours...?

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Pictures: The bear art above is by Theodore Kittelsen, Jackie Morris, Katerina Plotnikova, Susan Seddon Boulet, Edmund Dulac, Maurice Sendak, Gene Tobey, Līga Kļaviņa, Trina Schart Hyman, John Bauer and Marc Simont. Titles and artist credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors.


Then came the snow

From the Inner Season series by Virginia Lee

A dusting of snow at Bumblehill on Thursday

Howard took the photo above yesterday, from the rise of the garden behind our small house. Winter has been so mild this year that we thought a light dusting of snow might be all that we'd see  -- but this morning we woke to a proper storm.  The picture below was taken an hour ago. The snow is still coming, thick and fast, and the hills have vanished into white.

Snow at Bumblehill on Friday

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

Tilly racing down our lane

Tilly loves the snow, barreling down our lane in an ecstasy of pure canine delight. She follows Howard and me to the village -- where the roads, free of cars, have been taken over by families and dogs, by sledges and skates....

Hiking down the lanes to the village

Russian Winter by Gennady Spirin

The joy of snow

Tilly and me

For the length of the storm, the world is measured by children's laughter, not the roar of machines, and neighbours stand in their doorways to gossip, watching the snow fall instead of the clock.

Kids on their way to sledge on O'er Hill

Russian Winter by Gennady Spirin

The winding road back home again

Back home again to Nattadon Hill --where my studio cabin is sheathed in ice, nestled against the white winter wood. I climb up the hillside through drifts of snow to check that all is well up there, and then carefully climb down again. There will no studio work today while the snow keeps coming, the cabin creaking and rattling in the storm.

The Bumblehill Studio in snow

I make my way slowly down to the house, drawn by the kitchen window's glow.

The rayburn stove in our kitchen hearth

I stamp my feet by the door, peel off my wet coat, put my boots by Rayburn stove to dry. Tilly is curled in her bed nearby. There's coffee brewing. The snow keeps on coming. The world through the windows is muffled in white. Time has stopped and the clocks have gone silent.

The snow-covered hills, viewed from the warmth of the house

But all too soon, they shall start up again.

The white Devon hills

The Snow Queen by Angela Barrett

The art above is by Virginia Lee, Angela Barrett, and Gennady Spirin. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) All right reserved by the artists.


What winter is

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''Winter, then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run.''

- Mark Halprin (A Winter's Tale)

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"That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.”

- Ali Smith (Winter)

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"May we find comfort in the 'repeated refrains of nature,' the softly sheltering snow, the changing seasons, the return of blackbirds to the marsh....

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"May we find strength in light that pours in under snow and laughter that breaks through tears....

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"May we go out into the light-filled snow, among meadows in bloom, with gratitude for life that is deep and alive. May Earth's fire burn in our hearts, and may we know ourselves part of this flame -- one thing, never alone, never weary of life."

- Kathleen Dean Moore (Wild Comfort)

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"Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness toward experience, then make decisions based on creating biological wealth that includes all people, animals, cultures, currencies, languages, and the living things as yet undiscovered; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly."

- Gretel Ehrlich (The Future of Ice)

Tilly in the snow

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