Saturday, December 10, 2016

Winter's Dark

Despite the dystopia America has awoken to in the past month, this is one of the most beautiful winter seasons I can remember here on the coast of California, where the fir trees find their southernmost range, and the black sages their northernmost. I have always loved winter in California, and by winter I mean the rainy season, which normally (in the past) starts in October and lasts until the end of March. I have loved it ferociously, almost desperately in recent years, when drought dried the grasses dead gray until January. I love it with the love and fear that loss entail. I do not know what our rapidly changing climate will do to California. If we will become a desert or a floodplain. But I do know that I love the specifics of winter in this bioregion, as I have known it since I was a little girl. Back then, I despised the sight of blue sky between storms. It made me sour, and a little bit depressed. I coveted my time by the fire with a book and my berry tea as it raged and rained outside. I rejoiced when the power went out and we had to light candles and shower in cold water. When the lights came back on suddenly and without warning, I was petulant, disappointed. I ran outside in the street or in the back garden in the heaviest rain, and when I was older, and falling in love, I walked the mountain's flanks and rejoiced in that drenching. 

You must remember that winter on the central coast of California is a mild, generous affair. Cold enough to warrant sweaters and wool underwear, certainly (we do have frosts, you know, despite what you might imagine!), but rarely below freezing in the daytime, and mostly well above. Winter is our season of renewal. In other places throughout the northern hemisphere, from whence we get our seasonal myths and expectations, it rains in the summer, and so the summer is thought of everywhere as green and fecund. Here, summer is a dry bone. High summer is a northern winter in terms resources for plants and animals, until the berries come in toward the end. But Winter, she carries the green in her darkling pockets.

Green is the color of winter, gold is the color of summer, here on the coast of California. It is a beautiful, unusual combination, and the Northern European myths of yule and solstice only match to a point, but not beyond. If you want to really understand the winter here, you have to imagine the feeling of the deep darkness of short days and long nights, and all the magic and old voices that darkness kindles, while all the while that feeling the way that darkness is itself making a basket full of green, and everywhere you walk through the shortening days, the grass is an iridescence along the pathways, the nettles are leaping up from the earth, the raptors and waterbirds that summer elsewhere are suddenly everywhere on the bays and the telephone lines. This is the place they come for gentleness, for shelter. White kites with kohl-rimmed eyes that hunt aloft like angels. Kestrels with poppy-orange feathers and coats of smoke.

Ours is a sheltering kind of winter, for this is a land of many gifts. But it is still a dark winter, and the nights are long, with very sharp stars. The kind of darkness that roots grow full in. The kind of darkness that allows the unseen world to dance at all the corners of your perception. This, I think, is why I love winter so fiercely. The other day, walking down through the rain-wet redwoods in the early dusk, I asked myself why is it that I love the winter and the darkness so? Immediately many external answers came to me— because of the green, because of the rain, because of the dark, because of the time to sit by fires, by candles, with books and food and good company, because of the fecundity of darkness and of wet, because stories and ideas spring up through me like so many mushrooms... Yes, I replied to myself, but why? Why this deep thrill at the early nights, the short golden light, the wet, the dark?

And then it came to me, a glimmer of new understanding. I think that in winter (and especially in this landscape where winter also means new growth) the unseen world—the spirits that dwell in trees, in stones, in waters, in birds, in stars, in us—is a little easier to see, because it seems to me that all things relating to Otherworlds, to Mysteries, to Magic, prefer the cover of darkness. They are not beings or forces that can be seen with your eyes in broad daylight. They do not, as John O'Donohue would say, appreciate the "neon culture" that surrounds us, the need to shine the bright lights of fact and reason into every gentle burrow or wounded valley of land and spirit. In winter, night holds the day in her cupping hands, encircling and informing it. Night, stars, and moon hold the ground we walk, and hold us too, and the beings that dwell only in the unseen corners of earth and consciousness surround us more closely, more often, so that we are more likely to glimpse them there, just before dawn, just after dusk. In rain, in wet, in cold and greening forests, in long nights full of dreams and firelight, everything that we cannot see but that we know is there, dancing in us and in the world, is there, very close, and something in the darkness helps us to believe in it all again, at least for a little while, despite everything we've been taught and told. 

Then, of course, I remembered this poem by the great mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke. 

You, Darkness

by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Bly

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! —
powers and people —
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

Our seasons are becoming so unpredictable. It is easy to spin out into anxiety, to worry about next year, or tomorrow, or January. But right now, it's pouring. The redwoods are winedark with rain. There is much in the human world to cause outrage, to demand action. But also, there is the shelter of this darkness, of rain's undeniable beauty, of the unseen world, so lonely, lately, for our quiet and loving attention. 


  1. I feel just the same as you. I love winter, and am always sad when summer comes. Our seasons seem to be quite similar to yours - winters that are relatively warm, summers that are long and getting longer, getting drier, these days. By April, I am despairing that I will never see rain or wild, grey skies again.

    I love the winter (and the night) for the same reason as you - because the Otherworld seems so close in the quiet and the borderless dark.

    From the deepening heat of a southern summer, I wish you all the richness of your wet season.

  2. For those of us who are lifelong Californians your words touch a special place.I don't think I could bear the horrors the last few weeks have brought and drought as well.The rain gives hope when hope is so hard to find.
    Thank you for this post.

  3. i love winter too---the dark, the cold, and when it comes, most of all i love the silence of snowfall...

    maybe we are meant to have an in-turning time of the year, as well as an out-turning time, though our modern clock-wedded ways don't take that into account. but it may be a true need, as well as the best time in which to feel mystery...

  4. I always thought I preferred summer as a child—perhaps because in Australia that is when we have Christmas, and our long holidays from school—but now I find the cooler seasons more to my liking. The heat has a tendency to drain my energy, and hotter, drier summers bring the danger of bush fires, adding even more stress to the season. So I too find myself longing for the winter dark, for a certain amount of gloom and dampness, and inwardness. As always, thank you for your words.

  5. Lovely meditation. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Thank you for this post. I miss California winters. I grew up in southern California and then lived 20 years in Santa Cruz. Now I am in Oregon and it is much colder, damper, icier and bleak. At first I loved it as it was a magnification of the rainy season in Santa Cruz. But It has become a bit much. Missing the redwoods. I appreciated walking down memory lane with you.