Thursday, December 20, 2007

In the Deep Midwinter ...

Despite the cold wind roaring in from the north-east and freezing my face till my cheeks ache, and despite the clatter of a JCB just down the lane, digging trenches to fill with stones and drain a waterlogged field, there is a deep quietness about this time of year.

As I walk through the woods and between the hedgerows I can feel it. The restful silence of midwinter.

Tomorrow is the Solstice. The turning. Here, in the northern hemisphere, it is the sweet, imperceptible turning back towards the light. But for now – and for more weeks to come – everything feels quiet. Waiting. Hibernating.

Of course I know everything is gently ticking over. My blood still circulates and I am breathing. I know that deep in the soil the bulbs are moving. In another month or so the first snowdrops will emerge. Squirrels are still coming out, late morning, to scamper around in search of this or that, children still need to play and the birds, as always, are doing their thing. I did my 'timed tetrad visit' a few days ago, counting species around here for the new Bird Atlas. Yet despite all that, it still feels like Nature's quietest time of year.

As above, so below. Or rather, as outside, so inside. It is my quietest time of year, too. A hermit at the best of times, at midwinter I feel myself turn inwards even further, in towards myself, towards our life here in the cottage, towards contemplation, meditation, reading novels in the cosy warmth of the woodstove, playing on my computer.

I like the idea of a ritual to mark the promise of the returning light. So we shall have our private celebration, our small, midwinter feast in honour of the Solstice. But we long ago let go of that whole Christmas stress-out that so many people seem to get caught up in. Dashing round the shopping malls buying stuff? Forget it! It is entirely the wrong time of year for frenetic activity.

But the same mindless, ugly consumer culture that has turned Christmas into a shopping spree and a simple Christmas tree into a lawn full of hideous, plastic crap is the one that has driven a wedge between humans and Nature. If we were really listening, really tuned in to the energies around us we would not be hurtling around Wal-Mart. We would all of us, here in the north, be sitting quietly by the fireside by ourselves or with our loved ones, breathing gently like the quiet hedgerows, like the bare trees, like the silent, resting land around us, waiting for the light.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Any Thought in a Storm

When I set out for my daily walk this morning it was 9:00 a.m. but the sky was so dull and dark and heavy that it felt as though night had not yet fully retreated. It was raining and a strong wind was blowing. The hedgerows were sodden and there were parallel streams of water running down the margins of the lane, heading for the already swollen river at the bottom of the combe. I set off downhill, head bent, huddling into my wet weather gear, ears tuned, just in case a car or tractor should come down behind me, the sound of its engine drowned out by the roar of wind and water.

I paused on the bridge to contemplate the river, rushing and roiling, churned to the colour of of our local clay, and thought ruefully that I should have done my quarterly otter survey before the rains began. There will be little to record now, for any prints or spraint will have been washed away in the torrent.

I climbed the hill on the other side of the combe. Once at the top, out of the shelter of the trees, I met the full force of the westerly wind, as it drove the rain into slanting sheets – the kind that penetrate the gaps around cuffs and collars, sending trickles of cold water through the layers of clothing, like clever spies on a mission to discover skin.

My walking boots are sturdy, and although they leak a little I wear thick wool socks inside. So it was more than half an hour before I noticed the squelching. From then on, however, it felt as though my feet were encased in sphagnum moss.

There was something else I noticed, too, at around the half-hour mark. Which was that I was still there. I mean THERE there. There with the wind, there with the rain, there with my squelchy socks. There with the bare, stunted wind-sheared trees that grow in the exposed places, there with the damp sheep in the field, munching on wet grass, their tiny stick-like feet sunk several inches into the sodden ground. There with the few crows and seagulls still attempting to get somewhere but forced into detours by the insistent wind. There with the tiny, pink faces of the last half dozen campions, stragglers of summer, still blooming in their sheltered microclimate at the base of the hedge, their petals bruised and drooping.

Usually, by that time, I am just coming to the realization that I have walked for thirty minutes without seeing anything except the pictures in my mind. Usually, half an hour into my walk, I am reproaching myself for being 'out of my body' and off on a journey to one of the four places to which, like everyone else, I go whenever I leave the Now: i.e. the past, the imagined future, the 'me-world' of my troubles and schemes or my conceptual 'you-world' of all that is not me.*

Most days, the half hour point is where I realise that I have gone missing, so to speak, and remind myself that as well as good exercise, my morning walk is also, potentially, a meditation. But it can only be that if I stay present.

This morning, in the twenty miles an hour westerly wind that gusted to nearer thirty on the corners, in the drenching rain, with cold water trickling down my neck, I didn't go off anywhere. I stayed. And in the staying, I became aware, once again, of what Martin Buber called the 'I-Thou' relationship. Nature is not something to use. It is not wallpaper. It is not an 'It'. It is a 'Thou'. When I touch a tree, the tree also touches me. When I see a bird, the bird sees me also. As Thomas Berry says, "The world is not a collection of objects. It is a communion of subjects." Oh amen, amen, amen.

Why, this morning, did I find it so much easier to stay present to the here and now? Do we need 'bad weather' – floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, global warming – to wake us out of our collective, sleepwalking state and propel us into a better, more mindful way of being in the world? Hmmm. Perhaps we do.

(*as described by Richard Moss
in his latest book,
The Mandala of Being)