In the last week, the temperatures have risen well over 70 degrees, what we expect in April and not in late December, but my dubious joy and relief from those balmy days has crashed into the reality of winter, which is a relief. It’s also a drudgery.
Today, it’s overcast, and the world is pewter-cold. Yet I don’t feel that strange panorama of emotion (I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m freaked out, I’m delighted) over climate-change-heated winters that feel like springs. I’m guessing this December, at least in our climes, will be the hottest December on record. So when the temperatures plummeted, it felt right to feel too cold and somewhat miserable because that’s part of what winter is….or at least, what it used to be.
Trying to change radio stations in a freezing car, not yet heating itself up, in wool gloves? Check. Realizing I should have worn my Cuddl Duds (very soft long underwear) under my clothes? Yup. Drinking hot tea instead of iced tea and really enjoying the heat coming off my oatmeal? Yes. Looking outside and feeling as gray and worn as the sky? You bet!
But there’s also a return today of winter wildlife I haven’t seen much of until now, a few days before the end of this strange year. This morning, I was distracted while on the phone by an enormous bird on the cedars outside. After taking some photos and focusing in, we found it was an immature red-tailed hawk, puffed out to maximum plumage. Looking out the bedroom window just now, I saw a family of deer about ten feet away, not yet cold and hungry enough to gingerly wander up to the bird feeder, but closer than they were in our too-warm days.
This is the kind of winter day that immerses us in a charcoal tunnel, but there’s something familiar, expected, normal even about long stretches of cold when we find ourselves thinking 30 degrees isn’t so cold because we’ve just passed through an arctic blast. There’s something right about winter being uncomfortable, and if I haven’t dressed warmly enough, painful and certainly dangerous. Winter shouldn’t be something to be trifled with, yet with all the days our temperatures played ball in the 50s and 60s, now a regular winter day feels odd…..and right too.
There’s no denying so much of what’s wrong these days, especially what’s in big flashing banners before us about climate change and the pandemic. So it’s good when, in the midst of both, I can step outside and feel so cold that the spring-dreaming part of me chimes in time with the wintering world.
Beyond the lower temperatures and chigger count, there’s something else that truly distinguishes this time of year: the changing of the light. The blues get bluer, the pinks and oranges get more silvery, and the hazy summer air dries out to clearer edges and hues all around.
Summer in Kansas often feels endless, and not in a romantic, please-summer-never-end kind of way. It gets hot and stays hot. The hummingbirds fight-zip into each other, the cicadas’ walls of humming roars pour through us in waves of insanity, and sometimes, like this summer, it’s crazy-humid whenever the temperature fall below 90 degrees. It can be downright dangerous to walk in fields or even mowed lawns because of chiggers, ticks, and around the farm, occasional snakes. Depending on the day, stepping outside feels either like being in the middle of a sauna or, or on windy days, being inside a dryer tumbling us around.
May starts to get hot. June is definitely hot. July is hotter. August seems even hotter, but it could be that we’ve lost our minds by then. Even September acts like summer for much of its windy parade through, but then something happens. A switch is thrown, and suddenly, we’re in days in the 70s, nights in the 50s, and refreshing rains and cleansing winds return.
Then there’s the light: softer and more forgiving and, at the same time, more brilliant. Like this morning when, although I’m not a morning person, I got up at 6 a.m., and without even putting on my glasses, stepped outside to snap this photo before going back to bed, grateful for this generous sky.
For me, it’s always been the trees and sky, sun wavering on the surface of water, wind making its invisible presence known through the curving of prairie grass, the darkening night sky and the stars that emerge. It’s always been the bluebird on the edge of the field, the katy-did and katy-didn’t call of the katydids, the smell of cedar when I rub a small piece between my thumb and forefinger.
No wonder that when I discovered bioregionalism — a calling to learn how to live from where we actually live — I felt metaphorically and literally home. This movement that came of age in the early 1980s (in concert with my own young adulthood) focuses on how to be “…..lifelong students of how to live in balance with our eco-communities. We recognize that we are part of the web of the life, and that all justice, freedom and peace must be grounded in this recognition” (from a bioregional primer I put together with others some years back).
I found not just a name for what I know in my bones but kindred spirits, many of my closest friends to this day, including my husband. The bioregional congresses or gatherings we trekked to in Maine or Texas, British Columbia or Morelos, Mexico, deepened our connection to the places we left behind so that we could return more informed, inspired, and committed to keep community and make change. My bioregional pals have gone on to start land trusts, restore rivers, protect old-growth forests, manage community garden projects, and make no end of art, music, dance, and poetry that helps us breathe into where we live.
Which is a long-winded way of saying how I met Stephanie Mills and David Abram and conceptualized the focus of my new podcast, Tell Me Your Truest Story. I first spied Stephanie in a big circle of 200 or so people at the first bioregional congress in Missouri in 1984 when, as a way to introduce herself, she said, “I want to learn about my inner wildness as well as the outer wildness.” Me too! I set out to get to know her, a very good move given that she’s an embodiment of wisdom, inquiry, and big vision into the harder and also more sublime edges of what it means to live in eco-community.
In 1988, at the bioregional gathering in Squamish, British Columbia, I met David, who not only did sleight of hand magic, but talked with expansive eloquence about how written language distances us from plants, animals, weather and earth, which also have their own language. I shivered in recognition, and when he moved to Lawrence to work on a post-doc at K.U., I made it a point to befriend him. He was sick at the time, so I would leave containers of soup at his doorstep, an offering of food to draw someone deeply connected to the wild out of his cave. It worked.
0ur bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.
My first episode, “The World is Made of Story” (taking its title from something David said during our interview), is about starting at the starting ground, right now and right here. What Stephanie and David have to say helps us listen to the stories that dissolve some of the boundaries between the inner and outer, which Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to in this poem:
Suddenly, I’m searching for sweaters, cursing the lack of mittens with me for a walk, and shiver-driving around town for the interminable stretch until the car heater kicks in. But winter is like that: it shows up, uninvited and wearing its heavy steel-tipped boots, then eats the cupboards bare (or was that me?).
Then again, in October, this kind of house guest should be expected to drop in for a few days, make us forget our complaints about heat and chiggers, and sweep out the luminous spiderwebs and sweet songs of crickets. Soon, Thursday actually if the weather prediction is accurate, summer takes back the wheel (highs of 86!) until the next too-soon cold front. There’s no doubt on who will win this back-and-forth autumnal clash.
Still, although it’s inevitable — and given the state of climate change, I’m even grateful for it — it’s still a deal to wake up one day and realize that days of porch-working and -lounging are no longer the mainstay but the rare-and-relished short stretches until sometime in March when the back-and-forthness of the seasons flares out in technicolor again.
The challenging of winter’s not-so-sneaky preview now is all-the-more apparent in pandemic time. For many of us, being outside has been our saving grace, if not among other humans, at least among dogs and dogwoods, distance herons and near-by ornate box turtles, butterflies and butterfly milkweeds. But from what I’m learning — and you may be too — what this means is that we need to bundle up and get our butts outside anyway, walking briskly in the icy air to touch base with the ultimate base of this living, changing world. That’s why I walked with my friend today, and one pandemic benefit is that I had a warm mask to wear when my nose got too cold.
Each day I crave a clear view of a clear sky, but fog, snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain, and variety packs of all this percipitation at once fills the well-hidden vistas. Narrower perspectives of what’s out there push me inside and inward to what’s in here. My technicolor dreams, on the other hand, go go big screen and high speed, involving shadow cities of places I thought I knew and a conveyor belt of swiftly-changing characters, many of whom I don’t know. Then again, I’m also sleeping more, giving those dreams extra room to get wild.
Like many of us, this is the time of year I drink a lot of hot tea, craving little butter cookies to dunk in that tea, and at night, hunker down under blankets and heater cats (real cats, real warmth) surrounded by a herd of animals, now including two dogs, two kitties, and one husband. I’m more aware than usual of the air, sometimes too cold or too dry, and right now, composed of clouds too close to the ground. Last night, I dreamed I looked out a high window that doesn’t actually exist on the imaginary third or fourth story of my house to see the ground, faded into brownish green with small patches of snow, then when I looked again, greening up like it will do in a few months. I looked away and saw a blossoming tree, something like a magnolia, but when I woke into darkness and chill, such a tree seemed preposterous.
Because the scene is so monochromatic, I’m drawn more to black and white movies, last night Mr Deeds Goes to Town, which also has plenty of foggy, soft-edges scenes that even lower the volume of New York City 1930’s lights and action to a whisper. I’m hugging the edge of home more too, forgoing leaving the house with its heart-rushing foray down a drive composed of layered snow, frozen rain, sleet, and more rain. Instead, I bake or ignore the urge to bake, plan sewing projects, talk with friends on the phone, and make a whole lot of soup.
But that’s all for the good because in the cave of winter we’re meant to do some hibernation. Although it doesn’t feel like it, spring will come soon enough with its fast-moving flowers. Now is the time is quiet down and listen to the space between not enough and too much. That’s more than enough.