The long nights will continue to creep into life for a little over a week more. In the changing world of the living, the mathematical precision of day length is unwavering. There is a comfort there, but also a gauntlet of emotions to run as the winter solstice approaches. The longest night is literally a turning point, when the balance of light and dark switch roles. Celebrated likely for as long as humans have had the cognitive capacity to notice and think about day and night, there is no question that it is a noteworthy occasion.
It is during these months surrounding the winter solstice that I feel pulled in – to the earth, to silence, to peacefulness. The contemplative nature of winter is an incubator for both ideas and memories. While I take little action on anything for these months, my brain is sparking away with creativity, healing, and reflection.
I begin to think about what we have done to the commencement of this season. Winter is by its nature a time of hibernation and sleep, of rest and recovery. We have taken that turning point and corrupted it. There is now: the franticness to shop; the stress of finding the perfect gift (or not); the frustration of forced cheer and happiness; the obligation to spend time with people you normally wouldn’t; compromise (at times concession) on holiday decorations; fretting about what food to cook, who to invite, or what to write in the cards you send to people once a year.
A few weeks later it becomes focused on what to change about our lives, which resolutions to embrace, frustration at not being our best selves, and perhaps even dread, for some, that another year looms ahead. We have taken a serene season and elevated it to a cacophony as only humans can.
Take a walk. Go outside. Get cold. Watch what the real world is doing when darkness and night take center stage. It is quiet. It is still. There is still activity, but it is purposeful without wasting any energy. Squirrels hop across or under the snow in a straight line to the bird feeders or apple tree, and then back to shelter. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches fly in groups, eating, stashing, and searching for food. A lone coyote trots across the pasture, stopping at the chicken coop before loping across the field to the frozen carcass of a rabbit.
Single-minded, the expense of energy is the bare minimum for survival. The remainder of the time they sleep, rest, go into dormancy or torpor, and subsist off what they have acquired in the more bountiful times. Oh, to be so wise.
Stare at the trees. Notice their shapes. Feel their bark. They are alive and waiting for the return of the sun before using their reserves and leaping forth with energetic growth. Yet, even in dormancy, their branches cradles squirrel nests, their trunks embrace the sleepers within, and their roots protect a busy underworld of life that has literally sunk below the surface.
Feel the crunch under your boots and the sting of winter on your nose. Breathe in the frosty smell of a slumbering landscape. It is familiar, a scent you’ve known all your life. Listen as the wind whispers through bare treetops, a faint whistle as if calling for the leaves it usually rustles. Look up to the sky, at times an icy gray and others icy blue. Now stick out your tongue and taste the snowflakes, crisp and refreshing.
This is real. This is winter. This is the time when the darkness and daylight acknowledge each other and pass the reigns. This is when we are meant to be our deepest selves, to discover our essence, and begin to pull the best of that to the surface. Without the deep winter, we can’t reach our potential. Without winter, the world would spend too much energy. Rest is essential, reflection vital.
Perhaps this is why fire is such an important part of winter routines. It is light, it is heat, and it is a reminder that the light will return to the landscape, and that we will warm and awaken again in the spring. Just staring into the fire on a frigid eve seems to spur my brain and the ideas move faster. Fire fuels the spring burst of energy for me.
This year at Audubon we are celebrating the longest night, the shortest day, the return of light, and the progression of growth. Of course, we are celebrating with fire, and you are invited to share this with us. A Solstice Bonfire, held in the pavilion field, is an opportunity to slow down, rest your soul, and live in the moment that is. On Friday, December 21, from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. the fire will be blazing, a naturalist will lead you on a reflective winter hike, and the calmness of winter will surround you. Join us.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at Audubon.