Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Solstice, the promise of December

If December had a voice it would be in the gentle whisper of snow falling through naked trees, or the wind sighing above a narrow tree-fringed valley, each tarnished leaf and spindly twig motionless as if giving lie to the ceaseless current of air moaning aloft. As if in another time or place, or far removed from this brittle landscape with its tenebrous woods and rocky bourns half-buried under leaf wrack, where the echoes of footfalls break off sharply as if truncated or silenced by something unseen in the air, or dampened beneath the gnarled limbs of towering bur oaks, or smothered in the darkness congealing between the gathering boles. This still, small voice that spoke long before there were ears to hear, or time, or a calendar. Or a December.

Do the crows flying overhead comprehend this? They weave the air with invisible strands, the warp and weft a pattern of their own reckoning, untraceable to others. If I could call them down to me on this shadowed forest floor I would, and ask them what they know of the end of things. If they sense its approach in the lessening of light, in the endless bitter nights lumined by the silvery gilt of moonlight, or cavernous beneath patined clouds suffocating all light however pallid, each night longer, and darker, until sunlight seems a faraway dream. Will they think the night ascending? That their blackness will merge with night’s blackness and so disappear? Or do they fathom that all ends are but beginnings?

For most of our collective history we have wondered this, huddled around our hearthfires, looking for signs in the heavens or portends on earth. The knowing is one thing, the intense darkness another. We have forgotten all too readily. The earth is a circle and all therein even as the sun is a circle and the seasons are circular and return with exquisite precision, yet in the cold midwinter we fear the mounting gloom. Have feared. Not now.

We have sought solace in the burning of bonfires, in donning sprigs of mistletoe, in warding our windows with prickly-leaved holly, in gathering rowan trees to hang inverted in our dwellings. We have built intricate monuments to chart the course of the sun, whether Stonehenge or Newgrange or Maeshowe; we raised monoliths across the breadth of Europe and Egypt, constructed Aztecan temples and Chacoan pueblos, and in medieval Roman churches the sun slanting through a small hole in the roof tracked the meridian line which, surrounded by symbols of the zodiac, demarcated noon and the extremes of the solstices. Have, not now.

This desire to know the end and the beginning was as much a physical longing as a spiritual one. We called it Lenaea, Alban Arthuan, Inti Raymi, Shab-e Yaldaa, Mi na Nollaig, Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, Brumalia, Jol. We called it the winter solstice. We made celebrations to drive the darkness away, adulterating them into festivals of excess such as Saturnalia, ancient even before the Romans and the Persians, where children became rulers of the household and masters slaves, and, in the words of Seneca the Younger, “we…take a better supper and throw off the toga.” Have, not now.

We deduced from the placement of the North Star that our planet is tilted, that the sun’s light is not equal, that it shifts and lengthens and withdraws. We added a new holiness to the season and called it Christ’s Mass. We saw the world from space and so proved our computations. The darkness became metaphor for death and resurrection and no longer catered to our uncertainties. Christ’s Mass eclipsed solstice, and in return was obscured by the jangling of cash registers and the redcoated bellringers warding the entrances of supermarkets and malls. And greed. And excess. Saturnalia redux.

It is easier to hear December in this valley where I stand as motionless as the spindly twigs and tarnished leaves, with blackbirds weaving the low sky and calling out in their dog-voices, the insubstantial whisper of wind like the sound of distant tides. Competing voices are silenced. December murmurs and beckons.

And if it could be followed like the tracks of voles through the snowy meadow, December would lead us from first snow to the stronghold of winter’s reign. It would show us the end of things. It would sink us in unforgiving cold and infinite night. It would drag the sun earthward as if to embrace it. And at the last moment, when despair is imminent, it would turn a corner and release us.

This is the message of December, that in the darkness there is hope. That the end is a beginning. We know this, have known it for thousands of years. Have almost drowned it out. Have almost forgotten it. Almost, but not.

We must listen again. We must hear the still small voice of December. We must listen to solstice, to its promise. After all, we have been listening for a long, long time. The colorful lights garnishing our homes could never be as bright were the night not so deep; the hot drink never so comforting were the windows not glazed with frost.

The crows depart. Darkness swallows the trees, rises in the creeks like floodwater. I make my way toward the truck, a half mile away. Night falls. Falls hard and fast. Cold intensifies. Snow falls. It will not last.

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