Here we are again, in the darkest time of the year. After our holiday celebrations (most of them based on the land-connected traditions of our ancestors), now we settle into the rhythm of short days, dark evenings, and cold weather, already dreaming of spring. And indeed, the dawning of spring is always a riotously happy time, on the land and within ourselves. But, in the meantime, every year most of us do our best to avoid the lessons of winter.
On the 4-directions wheel that centered the inner and outer lives of most ancestral peoples, winter is the time for reaffirming the lessons of the North (in the southern hemisphere, the South). The opportunity for this comes around every year. And every winter, life in the human-created world is devoted to living the same way we do year-round—working, accomplishing, accumulating, staying busy, getting ahead. All winter, most people worldwide continue to align with the principles of “progress”: rapid growth and ever-increasing consumption, powered by ceaseless, short-term change. This impetus is nicely modeled by the South of the wheel, the summertime, when, in fact, most of Nature is also devoted to these principles.
But the land and creatures know that they can’t sustain the South’s pace continually, and we humans must learn that too. For us to become our full authentic selves, participating in generous, life-affirming societies, it’s essential that we submit annually to the North’s lessons.
Along with winter, in many traditions the North is associated with the element of Earth. The Earth element gives us our base, our foundation. Earth is solid, dependable, stable, supportive, slow to change. The North is also the time of Elderhood. A true Elder meets the winter fully. She is content to be still, patient and inward. She knows the value of stability. The wise Elder also knows, however, that this stability is not lifeless and inert. Instead, it nourishes and engenders necessary, timely change, in us and in the land. This change is rooted in Gaia’s laws and cycles, and prepares all beings to emerge into full, vibrant life again in the spring.
Thus, the Winter, every year, presents us with a cauldron of rebirth and regeneration—a cauldron that is manifest in the resting Earth and tended by the patient, faithful Elder. In this sacred cauldron of fertile darkness are the seeds of new life, lovingly held within calm, rooted stability. If new life—not only plant seedlings and baby animals, but the works and ideas of humanity—isn’t birthed from this nurturing, restful ground, it will never generate a balanced, inclusive, truly abundant future. And every year, humans ignore this lesson and continue to serve a life-denying, unsustainable way of living.
Who among us thought, last spring, that the Covid-19 pandemic would still be active 9 months later? And, all these months, human people and institutions have been struggling to maintain business as usual, despite the virus’s damaging, far-reaching effects on the human-created world. It almost seems that Covid has been imposing the harshness of winter, but without winter’s gifts.
As 2021 arrives, however, we are once again being presented with the chance to learn from the true Winter season, from the North on the wheel. The stakes are higher than ever this year: without these teachings we cannot birth the new, resilient, post-Covid world we yearn for.
Those of us who are still able to live more or less abundant, stress-free lives in this pandemic—besides counting our blessings daily and doing what we can to help our neighbors—have a Gaia-sent opportunity to sink into Winter’s cauldron. This is the most important spiritual work we can be doing right now. Both the Earth around us and the Elder within us can show us what we most need to learn. Let’s embrace this task, now, so that in a few months we can help the human and more-than-human worlds emerge from North to East, into a beautiful, exuberant, liberating Spring.