Part III: Poetic Touchstones of the Winter Solstice
Once we have explored the naturalistic parameters of the Winter Solstice, what can a more subjective and aesthetic experience tell us about it? As someone open to Earth & Cosmos, the entire cosmos comes into play in my meditations. Deep experiences of/in Nature at a particular season constitutes the Novitiate for Poetic Creation. The Winter Solstice Season is replete with deep sensory and experiential associations. This is an existential experience. It is constituted by:
1. Colors of the season: Blue & Gray, Black, brown and Green
The colors of this season here in western Pennsylvania constitute a background (a kind of ‘palette’) for other experiences. Blue and Gray are prominent, as are browns, black and greens. As the last of the leaves fall from the trees during November, the Winter Wonderland is revealed, even before snow comes—in the shapes of trees and the presence of the land emergent from out behind the summer foliage in which it had been clothed. Naked – exposed to our view – we now see the lay of the land itself for the first time since Spring. We see the contours of earth – and it is colored brown, black and green.
When the skies are clouded, here in western Pennsylvania, their color has a distinctive array of winter shading from blue and white to gray, grayer and dark gray. Slate blues and slate grays are prominent at the tides of Winter’s Solstice. Whenever I begin seeing these distinctive colourings, I intuitively start anticipating Winter’s Solstice.
2. Long, ever Lengthening Shadows
Ever since the end of August, more or less, the lengthening of shadows can be noticed. This lengthening is due to the declining altitude of the Sun as it passes across the sky. When I see the shadows lengthening, over a watchful course of days and weeks, I know that we are on the downside of the Wheel of the Year, heading ultimately toward Winterwoodmas. By November the length of the shadows at dawn and dusk is one of those phenomena that inspires me to start thinking of Winter Solstice stories, myths and of decorating the Hut of Dwelling! The shadows will lengthen until the eve of Winter’s Solstice, after which they will begin to shorten again over a course of days and weeks of watchful waiting.
Though there is no telling – in western Pennsylvania at least – when the snow will come or how much will fall, it is still an iconic phenomenon of the Winter Solstice Season. The first spitting snow in October or perhaps early November signals, for me, the end of the Autumn. At that moment I know that the beautiful season of many-colored leaves and the harvest, strange tales and pleasant warm days on the verge of the chill – is passing away. As November’s gloom (what the Celts called “an dudlach”) is transformed into a more snowy time, we know that Winter’s Solstice is hearkening to us. Some years the snow doesn’t come until sometime in December, extended our dwelling in the beauteous “the Gloom.”
While there are wild animals in the woods all through the year, there is more of a tendency to see them at the end of the Autumn and before Winter really sets in, as the fallen foliage opens a clearer view of the wide woods, and encounters become more possible. Visibility increases, and then we may better have a sighting of the animals that were hidden by summer’s rich, green cloak! Rabbits, squirrels and deer become iconic of the season leading up to Winter’s Solstice.
Once the summer foliage has fallen, the presence of evergreens also begins to be noticed. No wonder people associate evergreens and pine trees with the Winter Solstice Season! During the summer months, the evergreens are often inconspicuous; they blend-in with the rest of the green that so magnificently clothes the woods! As Winter’s Solstice approaches, however, evergreens stand-out from the background of browns and blacks.
As Winter comes on and Autumn passes away, I am drawn to evergreens in the woods. When driving out country roads I notice patches of evergreen trees on the ridges, along the creeks that come close the road or in towns that I pass through. Out hiking olden trails, I am struck by the presence of a pine or fir tree along the way as I come around a bend. It is a vivid reminder of the summer that has gone. I often stop to behold the evergreens. I am reacquainted with old friends and discover new ones.
Pines and Firs are not the only evergreens. There are also bushes and shrubs that hold their needles or leaves; Holly, Mistletoe, and Bayberry. I look at the ground and see the mosses – the lycopodia, of which there are seven species in all sruviving today – amongst the brown leaves covering the rich, black earth in the woods and along the roads. Everywhere you look, in the Winter Solstice Season, green presences in Nature; much more precious now than perhaps we thought it was in the summer, when everything was greened and fecund.
6. Creeks and Streams
As with the animals, all of the smaller waterways now come out of the cover of foliage and presence to us in the woods as Winter’s Solstice approaches. I often see portions of streams and creeks that were totally obscured during the summer months, and go to renew my friendship with them. These creeks and streams will be visible throughout the winter months, but they are especially noticed right after the fall foliage falls and The Gloom (an dudlach) characterizes the landscape—until the weather changes and they are obscured again under ice and an overburden of snow.
Turning our eyes skyward at night, we see a specific set of stars and constellations here in western Pennsylvania. Winter Solstice – like every other season of the year – gives us access to a particular vista on the universe beyond our planet. Our situation in orbit around the Sun reveals constellations like Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, and the Pleiades to our view in the northern hemisphere. Orion dominates the Winter sky, followed by Canis Major. Betelgeuse in Orion and Sirius in Canis Major are stars of interest that we can meditate on while observing the skies at this time of the year. Aldebaran in Taurus is about 150 times as luminous as our own Sun, and is bright orange to the naked eye. If we meditate upon the earth during the day, perhaps at night we should meditate upon the heavens.
All of these phenomena would be implicit to any poetic description of Nature at the tides of Winter’s Solstice at the latitude where I dwell. As meditation on accumulated experience gives rise to a poetic naturalism of the season, each of these phenomena plays their part in the opening of consciousness to the meaning of this season for our lives as naturalists, poets and mystics grounded in the revelations of science.
In addition to these phenomena, there are more subjective experiences that also characterize, for me, the Winter Solstice Season. Many of these are connected to the natural phenomena I have just described. Most of them are related to the increasing darkness in which we sojourn as the Winter Solstice approaches. These include:
1. Life at a slower pace—
The year is winding down. The days are growing shorter. Thus, we naturally slow down and more often take our time; or, at least, we should. The lessening of the light tells our senses that it’s time to sleep. Thus, there is a natural tendency to be sleepier and to grow quieter at this time of the year. Many people experience frustration and exhaustion – physical, emotional and mental – at the Winter Solstice because they are doing too much. It should be a time for rest and repose; but our culture turns it into one of the most exhaustively extroverted times of the year; i.e., the Holiday 'season'—with all of its shopping, socializing and bingeing (both religious and secular; i.e., emotional and materialistic). A Poetic Naturalism of the Winter Solstice Season would inspire people do no more than they need to do at this time of year; it should be time to stop and experience the growing darkness. If our schedules do not permit this, we should at least try and find quiet times (an hour here and there) to retreat from the hubbub and center ourselves in ourselves.
I also see the Winter Solstice Season as a time to take repose. This means more than just becoming a couch potato! It is not about being lazy, but rather turning inward and seeking renewal. It is time to recoup our energies and review our lives. What have we done for the last year? Where are we? What might we want to do or change in the coming months? It is no accident – from a naturalistic point of view; understanding the symbolic import of the season – that Winter Solstice has long been a time for resolutions, reconciliation and restitution. As we take time for repose, we may realize just how far our lives are out of sync with Nature and what we might do to right our path. Repose is a matter of quiet self-evaluation and a re-tying of connections with ideas, beliefs, ideals, and personal purpose.
3. Existential Intimacy—
As a result of the reduction of horizons brought on by the increasing darkness and shortened daylight, we experience our worlds as ‘reduced’ in existential length and breadth at Winter Solstice. This reduction in ‘experienced space’ – rooted in physical, sensory factors – can be allowed to result in an increased sense of intimacy with our surroundings.
Just as dinner by candlelight adds a aesthetic aura of intimacy to a get-together, so the decreasing light at this time of the year creates a similar mood. Instead of it characterizing a couple of well-chosen hours, however, it engulfs the whole of our lived-experience. It can be treated as a boon or a curse; the choice is ours to make.
For some people, this experience induces a kind of claustrophobia, though this can be alleviated by meditation and by embracing the reality of the season as a naturalistic fact. We can either experience the growing darkness as a restriction – which leads in some people to an existential anxiety – or we can experience it as a natural cloistering. As the Winter Solstice approaches, we go into our cell and find our self; alone in the four-fold of existence.
At Winter’s Solstice we enter into the cloister of ourselves by way of our senses. Enclosed more and more in darkness, we can experience a kind of bio-peace that comes from slowing down and being stilled in the growing night.
4. A Yearning for Light—
Accompanying this growing existential intimacy with our surroundings and ourselves is a natural yearning for light. It is for this very naturalistic reason – a response to darkness that arises out of our senses – that many northern cultures have associated fire with Winter’s Solstice. Our habit of putting up decorative electric lights and candles and other decorations that illuminate our place of dwelling through December is a response to this often unconscious 'yearning for light' that we experience as the days grow dark.
5. A Profound Earthen Intimacy—
As an extension of a general existential intimacy; the shrinking of our horizons—we may often find ourselves able to experience a deep intimacy with Nature at this time of the year, though one that is of a different quality from the natural intimacy we experience in other seasons. This can be experienced by going to natural places – nemetons, for instance – and sojourning there; participating in them, experientially and poetically, becoming familiar with in concert with the growing darkness that is increasingly embracing us. Places we love in Nature during the Spring, Summer and Fall will be very different at Winter’s Solstice.
Intimacy with our environs is, of course, characteristic of any season; yet the kind of intimacy we experience at Winter’s Solstice is just as unique as at any other season. At this tide of the year I often feel drawn into places that have a natural intimacy to them, such as nemetons in the woods enveloped in grape vines or encompassed by evergreens. I also go out to vistas with aesthetic views of the surrounding landscape. I like to experience sunrises and sunsets in places where, in the summer, I cannot see the Sun coming up or going down because of the foliage on the trees. Views of fog covering or sailing across a landscape always inspire in me a wintry melancholy.
6. Aesthetic Contemplation—
As we are led into existential and earthen intimacy, marking time by the lengthening of shadows, meditations may well lead to an experience of aesthetic contemplation peculiar to this season. There is an aesthetic contemplation characteristic of every season. At Winter’s Solstice it focuses on the physical and natural characteristic particular to this time of the year.
Earthen meditation may lead to contemplation. The aesthetics of our winter surroundings will stimulate a state of contemplation with a particular tenor and temper to it. We commune with Nature via the aesthetics of particular phenomena as well as the aesthetics of whole “systems” of phenomena.
Contemplation is a state of utter passivity that is also an active engagement with what on which we are meditating; scenery, icons of a season, as well as ideas inspired by these phenomena. Contemplation often arises without intent; occurring when our senses get ‘suspended,’ in that state that religious mystics have called ‘the prayer of quiet.’ This state has healthy, natural correlates; a ground within the biology of consciousness. An intensified version of normal consciousness, it can be induced via chant, rhythmic breathing, dancing, sex and meditation. Aesthetic contemplation is induced by our immersion in the aesthetics of our environs.
7. A Revelatory Experience of Natural Darkness—
This is more or less a culmination of the Winter Solstice season as a whole. As we journey into the darkness, abide and revel in it, we come to an intuitive and poetic grasp of the existential meaning of natural darkness. From one perspective, everything emerges out of darkness and returns to it; we come from the womb and end in the grave. Existentially we are sourced in darkness; then we awaken—to begin our quest for wisdom, leaving Plato’s Old Cave.
By experiencing natural darkness we come to an appreciation of how important our sight is. Unless we are used to it, a limitation of our usual range of sight may be experienced as a limitation on our being-in-becoming. In Nature's darkness we can become reacquainted with our other senses—especially hearing, touch and smell. To sit in the dark of a Winter's night and meditate is a very different experience from meditating in lighted settings, and at Winter’s Solstice I try and experience a range of settings for my meditations, from well lit rooms on sunny days to candle and decorative light-lit rooms in the evening, to meditation in a totally darkened room—i.e., my bedroom before the sun comes up.
8. Existential Homecoming—
By participating fully in Winter’s Solstice, I often experience a sense of “coming home to myself,” in the sense that a lot of my extraneous and unnecessary activity is limited by the growing darkness. I begin to ask, “What’s really necessary?” “What can I do without doing?”
In this way, we may come to a kind of existential centering; a “homecoming” in ourselves. We come home to ourselves as we intentionally dwell within reduced existential horizons. This facilitates – when appropriated positively – a spiritual self-(re)discovery. Whereas through the year we can get more or less lost in activity, at Winter’s Solstice we have the opportunity to rediscover our true selves; even our ‘best’ selves. Then, after Winter’s Solstice, we can venture out again, into the light, renewed and refreshed.
9. An Experience of Death & Rebirth—
Meditating on the turning of the season, we notice that there is, at a specific point, a shortest day and a longest night. Following this, the nights begin to grow shorter as the days get longer. Being aware of this transition and meditating on its meaning for us enables earthen mortals to experience their existential limit more profoundly. On Solstice Night, if we have reflected on the symbolism of the Solstice Season, we may actually participate in a symbolic death & rebirth for ourselves; an existential ‘ending’ and a ‘new beginning’—and this can happen for us every year at this time, if we treat the Winter Solstice Season as an intentional, spiritual journey. The longest night can be experienced as like a ‘death.’ As the light starts to return; we may then experience a rebirth of our best ideals and aspirations.
As I have reflected on the Winter Solstice Season over the years, these are the experiences that come to the fore and seem to drive my sense of what the Season is all about, poetically, existentially and aesthetically. You may have other experiences that characterize your devout experience of this Season, and I welcome your account of them. There are ways of experiencing each season that refresh, uplift, inspire and have the potential to transform us. Nature provides us with enough fodder for spiritual growth and transformation, that we should not need the warp and woof of superstition to succor and sustain us! I hope that in these blogs I have offered you food for thought, and helped illumine possible pathways for an enjoyment of the Winter Solstice that is grounded in a naturalistic poetics.