March 11, 2011

The Two Faces of Winter. ~Heather Hughes

Photo: Nha Le Hoan

The winter solstice divides the year and divides the winter as well. On the far side of the axis is winter dark and on this side is the secret spring. Winter dark is time for dreaming who to be, whereas secret spring is the root-work that allows these dreams to manifest.

When most people speak of winter they describe a day like today. Snow fell in the early morning, then puddles upon puddles of rain. The yard is a bog of mud and wet leaves. Everyone thinks its cold, but when I put my eye to the ground, I discovered the earth preparing for warm days. Bright tiny shoots gazed back from the water. They are the children of secret spring.

Life begins underground. Before the crocus lifts his head, before the birds choose their mates, the seeds germinate. They send their roots down through the warming, wet February soil, protected from nighttime frost by the last leaves of autumn.

In secret spring the sky is a million shades of grey. The clouds are heavy, but moving fast. The geese complain as they drift among the clouds, buoyed up by the same hurrying wind. In a few weeks the birds will make their long flights back north and end their winter pilgrimage. They gather in massive flocks, chattering and pecking the first green food of the season.

Scientists believe that migrating creatures react to the changing angle of the sun, not the weather, as was once thought. In winter the sun travels south and lingers, pale and solitary, at the horizon while the earth turns cold. Only humans seem unaware of the change. We roar across a sentinel planet with the help of our heaters and gas guzzling machines. Meanwhile, bear sleeps and monarchs gather by the drowsy thousands in the hilltop forests of Sierra Chincua. In February, the butterflies follow the geese north, lay their larva on milkweed pods, and die.

Back in Missouri, I enjoy winter dark with a walk beneath the cold night moon. The earth is still and frozen solid; the air is sharp and clear as glass. My thoughts follow my feet across the glittering reality as my dog and I follow the moon. I marvel at the shape of the naked trees that, without their leaves, appear like tall, patient men waiting in the snow. This is the winter everyone recognizes. It’s the season of three hundred dollar electric bills and family celebrations, of snow and silence.

If I were to mark winter dark on a calendar, I think it would begin in November. The ancient Celts believed that the boundary between life and death was thin this time of year. Romantically, the belief invokes thoughts of fireside conversations with the family ghost. In reality, cold nights and hunger drew many across the Veil unwilling. On the night of the winter solstice our ancestors kept vigil, praying for the sun to return. Different cultures gave the sun different names, but even modern Christmas remembers the awe inspiring birth of light from darkness with song and prayers.

However, by January the sun has visibly begun his journey home. The seeds begin their underground work and modern humans calm down long enough to file their taxes and pack up the Christmas tree. Secret spring marks the weeks between darkness and the vernal equinox and contains the ancient festival of Imbolc. This early-spring holiday celebrates the birth of season’s first lambs and calves. It also acknowledges the return of the earth as a maiden goddess. The ancient Celts dedicated these days to the goddess Brigid and medieval Catholics held a feast to honor the purification of the Virgin Mary.

Today, few people celebrate the green touch of secret spring or experience the clarity of winter dark. Both seasons are beautiful, but cold. They last only a handful of weeks and tend to blur into a conglomerate season called sweater weather. Their details are microscopic, like the structure of a snowflake or the root of a newborn seed, too small to notice when I’m in a hurry. Yet when I slow down I see secret spring as the promise of color and tiny life stirring underground. Winter dark is a moment rest as the seeds and butterflies wait the time of rebirth. Both are a gift to those who observe the journey of the sun and the metamorphosis of the earth through her many seasons.


Heather Hughes is a knot tying, hoop spinning mama from rural Missouri.

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