Winter Solstice and Hope

Venus, the evening star, is sparkling bright and high in the southern sky this evening as blue dusk ebbs into darkness. We’re three days from Winter Solstice, the longest night/shortest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, and night falls soon and swiftly after sunset.

Winter Solstice is the year’s “hinge,” or turning point, when the sun rises and sets at its apparent southernmost spot on the horizon during its annual journey from south to north. ‘Apparent’ because it’s Earth’s movement that makes the sun appear to move through our sky.

Regardless of which celestial body is actually moving, the days grow shorter until Winter Solstice, when the sun appears to stick in place. 

(That seeming “stuckness” at both the southward and northward ends of the sun’s apparent journey, when it seems to pause at its rising and setting points for a few days, gave rise to the name solstice, which comes from the Latin for “stands still.”)

And then, as if impelled by some extraordinary power, the sun gradually begins to move its rising and setting points again, heading northward after Winter Solstice, the days slowly lengthening and the nights ebbing. The darkness that has overtaken the Northern Hemisphere recedes, pushed away by the growing light. 

No wonder that the world’s cultures have long celebrated holidays involving light: Solstice, Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Yule, the ancient Persian festival of lights… When the darkness seems to close in and stay, we humans naturally hope for a new beginning, a return to spring, light and the rekindling of life. 

Colored lights on a Christmas tree

This year, the darkness of impending winter feels metaphorical as well as literal, and the gloom of world and national events is reinforced by the bitter cold weather that has settled across at least the northern part of the country. 

I find myself burrowing inward, hungry for light of all sorts. The light of inspiration, of generosity, of kindness, of knowledge and understanding. Of cooperation and community.

The light of the kind of hope which inspired Emily Dickinson to write,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – 

That perches in the soul – 

And sings the tune without the words – 

And never stops – at all –

That kind of hope is not a passive longing for some imagined, better future. It’s a real force, the voice of life itself, of all the lives–human and moreso–who make up this world. It grows out of our collective drive to flourish, which depends not on passive longing or next quarter’s profits, not on ego or self-gratification, but on our ability to contribute to the interwoven and vibrant community of life on this green and blue planet. 

I am hungry for that sort of hope and the light of the soul it brings. And for the literal light too, of longer days, of the sun’s warmth, of new growth and green. 

I believe in hope of the kind that perches in the soul and never quits singing. We can forget to listen, we can be overwhelmed by events outside our control that seem to dim that voice. But like the sun, finally, slowly, moving north again to bring longer days, warmth, and spring, the light of the human spirit, of compassion and kindness, of wisdom and generosity will gain strength and return its warmth to our world again. 

As long as we each do what we can to nurture that light. 

Which is why, on Wednesday night, I will light the darkness of my little property the way Richard and I did together for so many years. I will set out lunch-size paper bags along my walk and deck, each filled with a generous scoop of sand for weight and fire-protection, and light a votive candle to place in each. 

And as I light those luminarias and watch their glow spread in the darkness of winter’s longest night, I will renew my vow to live in a way that spreads that light in the figurative sense, of understanding and compassion for all beings. I will work to return spring, to restore the earth’s green and vibrant communities as I work to restore hope in all who seem stuck in darkness or fear. 

On Wednesday night, I will also carry luminarias to the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden, and place them in a circle around “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture there. It will be my last Winter Solstice here in Salida, my last time to light his work this way. 

If you are so moved, join me in spreading the light on Wednesday night. Light a candle, put out a few luminarias, string up colored lights, or whatever.

As those lights glow in the darkness, join me too, in vowing to extend the light. Make this holiday season one of enlightenment and action, of kindness and compassion of all sorts. 

Together, we can light the darkness, and renew the good in the world. 

Matriculation with luminarias as the full moon rose on Winter Solstice in 2013

Butterflies, Wildfires, Racism and Reconciliation Ecology

This morning I watched in wonder as a gorgeous two-tailed swallowtail butterfly, our largest species with a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, sipped nectar with focused concentration from the showy milkweed flowers on the creek bank below my house. Milkweed flowers that didn’t exist nineteen years ago when my late husband Richard and I bought the chunk of blighted industrial property that gave us a block of frontage on an equally blighted thread of urban creek. 

Those milkweed plants seeded themselves in as I began restoring the creek, hand-weeding the invasive, non-native plants to make space for those, like milkweed, who would contribute to the creek’s health and restoration. Now, almost two decades later, that block of creek sings with hummingbirds, swallows, bluebirds, tanagers, butterflies like the huge two-tailed swallowtail above, mayflies and caddisflies, garter snakes, and all manner of renewed life. 

What a joy it is to help revive a community! That kind of work is my way of restoring goodness to a world that sorely needs it. 

Seeing the swallowtail nectaring from the milkweed flowers this morning reminded me that we can be a positive influence. We can heal each other and this battered earth. It returned my sense of hope for our future. 

Tonight I sit in my kitchen and watch as roiling clouds of forest fire smoke boil over the valley from the Hayden Pass Fire, which started yesterday in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and today blew up into 3,000 acres. The fire in remote country at the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range, and not threatening any human settlements, although two campgrounds on the Hayden Pass road have been evacuated. 

As the smoke column from the burning forest billows upward, I’m thinking about national events of the past few weeks, from the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to more killings of black men by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, to the sniper-attack in Dallas. I’m thinking about grief and anger and when things spiral out of control, like the Hayden Pass Fire, which grew from something small and manageable into a conflagration creating its own weather over the course of one hot afternoon. 

I normally shy away from commenting on national events, mostly because I don’t feel like I have much to contribute. I’m a plant geek, not a politics geek. 

But the anger and devisiveness in this country today feel to me like the Hayden Pass Fire, a destructive force gathering strength from the very society it is consuming. I don’t want to see this country burst into flames.

Of course, the metaphor isn’t exact. Here in the arid West, forest fires–even the big catastrophic ones–also do good, recycling nutrients, opening up the forest canopy to allow new growth, fertilizing the soil with their ash, giving seeds of wildflowers, grasses and shrubs–of aspen trees–space and nutrients to grow and flourish. Wildfire can be a rejuvenating force here. 

I wonder if there is a way in which the catastrophic fires plaguing humanity these days could also somehow lead to restoration. 

I don’t want to trivialize the horror, the pain–the sheer wrongness of knowing that your life is in danger simply because of the color of your skin, your religion, and/or your gender. No one should fear for their life for any reason. Ever. 

So what do we do in a country where we have fostered the kind of hatred that makes that fear and pain a reality? Perhaps we can learn something from reconciliation ecology, a new discipline within my own field that I just learned about recently, although it turns out I have been practicing it for decades. 

Unlike restoration ecology, which aims to restore pristine natural communities by eradicating all non-native species, or preservation, which sequesters whole areas of landscape as biodiversity reserves to preserve the integrity of wild nature (Yellowstone National Park, for instance), reconciliation ecology proposes saving species by increasing biodiversity within existing and often severely modified urban and agricultural landscapes. 

How is reconciliation ecology practiced? Study the existing landscape, learn what species are there, work at making space to return native species within the framework of the existing lives, and continue to promote community heath and diversity as you do. 

Patiently and carefully making space for diversity within what already exists. That seems to me to be something we could apply to human culture too. Suppose we worked at reconciliation ecology in a way that honored all of the people who share this country. That aimed to make communities healthier by honoring and nurturing their diversity. That acknowledged what is–racism, violence, pain–and also what could be, a society that welcomes diversity as a part of community strength and health. 

The word reconcile comes from the Latin, meaning “to bring back together.” That seems like a good metaphor for the work we each need to do in this country: bring our society back together.

We’ve allowed ourselves to fragment, to draw lines between those we embrace as “us” and those “others” we don’t. That’s wrong, and contrary to what I think of as our species’ best talent. We can’t fly thousands of miles on fragile wings, we can’t dive unaided deep in the ocean, we can’t metamorphose, our very cells melting and reforming from hungry earthbound caterpillar to elegant winged butterfly; we can’t last for decades, waiting patiently in the soil for the right conditions like seeds. 

But we can love. And that, it seems to me, is what we should do now. Begin working on the reconciliation ecology of our communities, nurturing healthy diversity, with as much love as possible. 

Like the native coneflower in the photo above, who sprouted all on her own in the parkway once I created space by carefully hand-weeding invasives that had crowded the wildflowers out. This plant that botany calls Ratibida columnifera doesn’t care that she’s growing in town on formerly industrial property next to a busy street; she doesn’t care about the sunset-it column of forest fire smoke behind her. Like us, she just wants to live her life in the way she does it best, summoning native bees to pollinate her flowers, blooming in the sun even after months without rain, enlisting songbirds to consume and distribute her seeds. Living as part of the community. 

Don’t we all deserve that?