This post was revised to multiple edited posts on December 18. Here’s hoping it reads a bit leaner and humbler.
“Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow”
This is how poet Christina Rossetti described the natural world to our insufficient senses in “In the Bleak Midwinter” in 1872. The poetry is exquisite and ready made for the liturgical hymn it would become. But is this the sum of the winter world in its entirety: stiff as stone, hard as iron, and abundant with snow?
Midwinter’s Energy: This is Not Retreat
Why would an assessment of winter lensed through human senses be at all inadequate to describe the energy of the natural world at this relative time? Because the less-seen-world of nature during a hibernal Winter Solstice (“midwinter’) can be more active than we observe. This is true both in our immediate terrestrial environs, but also on a cosmological scale. Let’s start with what has been happening over the last several months, leading to the Winter Solstice. While observed on the shortest day (December 21, 2019) solstice is a process. Our planet began the process which will turn our lakes to stone, our earth to iron and produce snow on snow on snow around September 21st . This was when both the earth’s rotation and tilt moved our Northern Hemisphere away from the direction of the sun. Both tilt and direction are the important terms and concepts. We are not “farther” way from the sun. In fact, our planet is closer to the sun within its elliptical annual rotation in December. But we in the Northern Hemisphere experience winter now due to the tilt. If the concept is difficult to grasp, think of this: the sun appears to be lower in the sky throughout the winter. That is because we are tilted away from the sun.
It’s Good To Be Oblique: On Earth We Lean
I’m not a scientist and I nearly failed Astronomy in college. I’m a poet and would now like to return to the more familiar and tilted ground of earth. Let’s just accept that we are moving around the sun in an ellipse, the earth is rotating at the same rate as it travels that ellipse, and our planet relative to the sun is always tilted at a 23+ degree angle. We are oblique, posed at an angle on this planet at all times. This is where our terrestrially aligned senses fail. Our relationship with the ground is predictable, even though we stand at an extreme angle relative to the sun we orbit. When I step out the front door, the stairs to the driveway are in the same place, the trees rise perpendicular to ground around them. I do like this fidelity. I also like that the earth is moving through space with fidelity over the course of what we call a year. Days are still measured with 24 hours during all seasons. But sunlight is scarce and days, realtively speaking, are short.
Remaining Green on the Inside
Closer to home: nature doesn’t disappear in the winter. Most animals and insects, and even many plants, don’t actually die. Most move to a hibernal state. This is to say they are using energy-differently.
Perennials are said to come back. But they never went away. Many just move to a state of dormancy. I have purple coneflower that returns every year in the late spring in my Wild, Abandoned backyard. They are now dry, brittle stalks and seed caps. But they are green on the inside. The seeds seem to drop in the same relative place every year and need the winter for pre-gestation processes. Cold weather will ease open the surrounding shell while the seed remains dormant in the hardened soil. That seed, a fragment of the plant, is using energy differently in its dormancy. To take it to a nearly metaphysical level—that plant part is getting a major assist from winter earth energy that works to crack it open and literally hold it in place.
Slower, Because We Are
Take the human experience. It feels slower. An icy ground is harder to navigate. We tire faster in cold weather. It seems to take more energy to do anything. We are moving to our hibernal state as we tilt farther from our universal source of energy. That’s right, the planet is not the only thing that is heliocentric. We are also depending on the sun to produce food for energy and a terrestrial atmosphere that itself drives our bodies to utilize energy differently. But we are not just going to sleep.
The Winter Work of Our Beautiful Minds
There is perhaps a good scientific and neurological explanation to why I feel that I have a more fertile imagination, write more, read more and even derive more satisfaction from all of these activities in the months leading into the Solstice and through the winter. I’m just not willing to stop and research the physical factors at the moment. I’m going with this: mind energy is capable of using the reserve of energy that a body has stored as a result of a its winter readiness. These might be the results of: the kinetics of moving slower through the world, eating more fats, & of all our natural inclinations to physically survive the winter. But as our planet tilts farther from the sun, we seem to tilt inward to thoughtful and creative processes. I don’t think I’m alone in this actioning of the mind with activities like those listed above. Even those friends I know to be grieving this time of year are using their mental and if you will, spiritual energy, in a constructive and active manner. This is not exclusively the work we do in midwinter, but for many of us, it is work which comes more naturally at this time.
Tilt Farther this Midwinter- We Are Not Standing Still
The literal definition of Solstice is “Sun Standing Still.” Poetically, I think of this as the sun giving us our big break, literally and figuratively. Is your heart ready for what the midwinter might bring to you? This Hibernal Solstice I invite all to take the big break the sun has gifted you: recover more of your humanity waiting in reserve, turn off the political vitriol, enrich the hearts of others, reach out to the grieving (even if that’s yourself), and share some this productive sun-born energy. Perhaps, more simply: love the world that sustains us, more. I’ve witnessed and accepted, let’s call it, luminous energy from friends, family, & strangers– much of it transmitted in this very “time of the tilt.” You may call it Christmas, or something else entirely. It’s midwinter by the solar calendar. Winter will not break us, but it very well may play a part in making us stronger mentally and spiritually. We are still standing, but we are not standing still. Tilt Farther.