Part I: Experiencing the Seasons
“Days and nights, seasons and tides, cycles of fertility, rest and activity: all are reflections of the rhythms imposed upon us by celestial motions. They have influenced where, and how, people may live; the elements that they must overcome; the shelter and dress they must construct, and the stories that they tell about it all.” (114)
- John D. Barrow The Artful Universe (1995)
Every season has a poetic as well as an experiential gist. There are stations that we find in each passing season where we are able to come to terms with what that season might mean to us, existentially, subjectively and inter-subjectively—as well as how it is constructed, objectively; i.e., in terms that science and rational engagement with Earth & Cosmos can discover and then explicate. In touch with our experiences, natural and personal, inward and outward going, we travel around the Circle of the Seasons, moving from one station to the next.
Dwelling in Earth & Cosmos, we must nurture an intentional awareness of the Seasons if we want to discover their symbolic ‘meaning.’ Intentional engagement with Nature leads to vivid reflections on life as lived. In each season the intentional sojourner discovers poetic touchstones of the gist of our existential flux & flow in time & space; our living-of-life as it is ‘given’ and also as we make it. We come to realize that the natural seasons have back-grounded our experiences as we grew up; even if we were largely unaware of them; at least until an awakening¦ happens. Once awake, dwelling in the circle of this ever earthen existence, deepening toward a fully naturalistic consciousness, we hope to come to experience glimmers of our true relation to Earth & Cosmos. The Earth is full of mysteries; the cosmos is wonderfilled and awesome. Life is too short to plumb the depths of Nature fully; yet we must begin to do it—in order to come to anything like a full realization of who we are, where and when we are in the universe.
How do we come to understand things that are at once so familiar and yet so mysterious?
We do it by going out into Nature, following our intuitions as well as more rational directives, seeking knowledge as much as experience, aesthetic engagement as much as deeper insight. We travel with purpose and always deliberately -- if intuitively -- through the turning gyre of the year, vividly experiencing our surroundings, both natural and cultural. We do it by reflecting devoutly on what we experience; both in the present and as the culmination – moment by moment – of our own personal history in the journey of life. We do it fully immersed in honest thinking, always open to the draft of creativity’s touchstones, listening to our emotions as markers of our experience and the guideposts of our needs. We do it by accepting that we are Nature trying to understand itself—that we are connected to the diverse array of natural beings; plants, animals and etc. – that populate this planet. We are animals; Nature is our 'mother'—our source as well as our destiny. We are earthen creatures.
Our experience of Nature is demarcated by the Seasons; which are the annual ‘phases’ of the year through which we move as intentional sojourners and journeyers. The seasons depend on the relationship of the Earth to the Sun in its orbit; they occur because our planet is oriented to its star in a particular way; the Earth is tilted 23 1/3° from the plane of its orbit around the sun. This creates the varied climates that our planet experiences; the seasons that we pass through annually. Between these phases of the year are ‘turnstiles;’ i.e., events at the boundaries of the seasons known as solstices & equinoxes. In many cultures, each of the seasons and its turnstile has been endowed with specific symbolic content. Such symbolism arises as people focus on the turning of the year and what it means for their existence.
As delineated by natural signs of the seasons, the Poetic Naturalist’s year has its most likely arche at Winter’s Solstice, from which it proceeds through the Vernal Equinox, the Summer Solstice and then on and through the Autumnal Equinox and back to Winter’s Threshold. These four ‘events’ – arising as they do out of the interrelation of Earth & Sun – are the naturalistic ‘stations’ that demarcate for all sentient creatures the turning of the Wheel of the Year. Using these four ‘events’ as sign posts, we may make a path for ourselves through the year, existentially, poetically and creatively—always seeking a deeper understanding of the cycles out of which our consciousness has arisen and continues to arise.
Winter's Solstice has often been seen as the ‘origin’ of the year; in traditional northern hemisphere cultures it is connected to and represents death & rebirth. The Vernal Equinox represents the first flowering of fertility. It symbolizes the fecundity of the Earth as well as the fruition of what was ‘born’ at the Winter Solstice; the coming into its own of life. The Summer Solstice represents the culmination of the year’s fecundity. The Autumnal Equinox represents harvest and the gathering-in of energies in preparation for death and another renewal at Winter’s Solstice. This ‘symbolism,’ is, of course, contingent upon one’s place on the Earth, in terns of latitude.
Part II: Prelude to the Winter Solstice Season
“There are clear imprints of an annual period in life-cycles of animals. Evolutionary adaptation will favor the survival of innate ‘clocks’ that time the birth of offspring to coincide with times when the chances of survival are highest, especially in the temperate regions where the seasons change abruptly.” (115)
- John D. Barrow The Artful Universe (1995)
As we come around the circle of the year to the Winter Solstice, what do we make of it? If we begin the year at the Winter Solstice, what might we take it to mean, existentially, philosophically, poetically? What does a Poetic Naturalist celebrate – or observe, or participate in – as the Winter Solstice approaches? What constitutes an experience of the Winter Solstice?
Behind all of the religious and mythological associations long garnered to the Winter Solstice, one finds an experiential event linked to the orbit of our planet around the Sun; the tilt of the Earth on its axis, an event that arises out of the way in which Earth & Sun are situated with regard to each other. It is also determined by our geographical position on the planet as open, authentic experiencers. The first thing to meditate upon is that how -- and even if -- we experience a 'Winter Solstice' is geographically determined; e.g., in the temperate zones of northern and southern hemispheres there are four seasons, but in the arctic and tropical zones the 'seasons' are different; there may be only two or three seasons, depending on how one demarcates them.
There is nothing ‘universal’ about the Winter Solstice.
Yet Winter’s Solstice is not just an arbitrary event. It is a physical happening; a phenomenon to be observed and experienced in our particular situation on this planet-home of ours. It is available to every sentient being in a geographical region in which it occurs; regardless of beliefs, culture or traditions (so long as these don’t blind a person to Nature). It is an event dependent upon a particular aspect of the arrangement of matter and energy in our solar system. There would be no Winter Solstice, in either hemisphere, if our planet were not tilted on its axis. There might still be solstices & equinoxes if the Earth were tilted a little more or a little less. But a lack of tilt would have resulted in a whole different planetary ecology, and thus a whole different array of evolved life forms! We are here, in part, because the planet is tilted on its axis in such a way that we get four seasons in temperate zones and two (or three) seasons in both equatorial and arctic zones. As such, the Winter Solstice – like the other three stations of the earthen year – is dependent on naturalistic conditions.
If you move further north or further south, from any position on the planet, your experience of the solstices & equinoxes will be different. The days & nights are almost equal at the equator while, at the poles, there is a diurnal year—half of which is spent in daylight and half in darkness. Thus I reiterate the point that any person’s experience of it will depend upon where in the world they are! My experience of Winter Solstice is conditioned by the fact that I live in western Pennsylvania, in a specific temperate ecology, with distinct flora & fauna in my environs. The weather that we get here, and the terrain in which I move; both of these factors play into my experience of Winter’s Solstice and anything I might celebrate as a result of my experiences.
Science can tell us why the Winter Solstice happens and how it is experienced – physically and environmentally – in all latitudes on the Earth where four seasons exist. Must you have four seasons to have a Winter Solstice Season?
At the poles, where the year is divided into two six month stretches; one of darkness and one of light—would there be some experience corresponding to solstices and equinoxes? There would be ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’ – six months apart. Then, I suppose, one might calculate to a point halfway through the dark period – the “darkest day” – that would correspond to Winter’s Solstice? The other point of the year – half way through the daylight months – would correspond to Summer’s Solstice? These dates would probably correspond to the Winter and Summer Solstices in their respective hemispheres. As I don’t live in these regions, I have no first hand experience of this. If anyone living in these climes would care to share their experience with me, I would appreciate it.
At the equator and within the zone of latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, there would be two days of most intense heat and light corresponding to the equinoxes in the two adjoining hemispheres. On the vernal & autumnal equinoxes, the earth is positioned relative to the Sun in such a way that the Sun’s rays are striking the planet dead-on at the equator. Alternate to these two dates, there would be two dates – 21 December and 21 June – when the Sun’s light would fall directly on one of the Tropics (Cancer or Capricorn). Between the Tropics, there could be no solstices and equinoxes as there are above and below these latitudes. Equatorial peoples, I would then think, must have a quite different experience of seasonality. Even people at the poles have a correlate experience to Winter and Summer Solstice; at the equator, what would a cycle through the season be like? As I have never lived there, either, I would welcome reflections on the seasonality of the tropics from anyone who has lived there and who has thought about this.
If these assumptions are accurate, then the Winter Solstice is really an experience possible only above and below the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This must be figured into any naturalistic poetics of the Winter Solstice that we attempt to construct. We must also allow that any deep engagement with this season is going to be dependent upon one’s particular location in the Earth; latitude and topography will alter the experiences that we have, and thus alter the symbols, metaphors and stories that seem appropriate to the season.
¦ How do we awaken ourselves? How do we come to be waeccan? It often happens by accident. We have an experience or someone says something that stirs our consciousness to the fact that we are walking through life as if asleep. We are sleep-walkers on our feet, going through the motions. Though we chafe at the realization, we sometimes fall back asleep again. Yet, there may come a time, when the impetus to wakefulness takes root in us, inspiring in us a struggle toward fully waeccan consciousness. It is always a fortuitous experience that lures us toward wakefulness—it is an 'epiphany.' The moment of awakening is often so subtle and yet so surprising that it becomes a turnstile on the path that we eventually realize that we are on; seeking wisdom and wholeness, becoming who we are. Once we have taken hold of such a moment, our course is irrevocably changed; we begin moving toward waeccan consciousness.