These particular days and and nights prompt me – as they do many – toward darkness and silence. This comes with the territory if you are to the boreal born, as I am. I’m prone to these twins of December. I don’t mean I like them, particularly. I love them, but they aren’t easy to love. The twins of December are for real. They proceed regardless of your plans. They make it a challenge or a futility to get somewhere. They can break down every gadget, every allegation of necessity that comfort has conjured in you until there is you, and the possibility of being warm again for a while if all goes well, and nothing else.
No, I come to them more as an advocate than I do as a practitioner. It may come as a bit of news to some whose paths have crossed mine, but I am not accomplished at darkness or silence. Each of these seasonal Gods needs a proper welcome, and we need thorough practice at maintaining a place at the hearth for them. There is little in the current regime that prompts most of us to either. But darkness and silence in December are the finest of occasions for welcoming life into our days, the great prompters of grace and obedience, the great crumblers of aloofness, cleverness and irony.
About now some who are still reading this may be growing a concern for my outlook, and others might have certain reservations they’ve been nursing about my work now sustained and vindicated. I’ve written about these things before, at this time of year. I admit again I am not good at them, at least not yet (Griefwalker is more an assignment than it is a description). I do have a devotion to darkness and silence, though. They aren’t far from me. The devotion isn’t mutual, at least not in any way I can discern. Silence isn’t easy to come by when you talk for a living, and the black cold of this time of year isn’t friendly to my lungs. It has begun to force upon me a seasonal, wandering life. If this keeps up, and I get good at it, my ancestors might recognize me when the time comes for our meeting. They might recognize the mark of the seasonal devotee, the one who obeys by moving.
There are misapprehensions galore in December. Here is my purpose in visiting this again with you, now: to plead for darkness and silence. And here’s why: They are psychologized in our time, but they are not interior conditions of the human psyche. Never have been. We are simply not built for either. The chassis, the human body, just has too much running through it to be amenable to darkness or silence. They are not human attributes.
This hasn’t prevented novelists and moralists abounding from forcing either or both of these things upon romantic individuals, or heroes, or upon humanity as a whole. It is compelling as an idea, and it is an easy idea to have, but the entire enterprise of ‘inner life’ – as so many of our enterprises do – requires the human being at centre stage at every moment, in every era, in every possibility. We are awash in similitudes – or in their slightly more sophisticated brethren, metaphors – and the twins of December come in for heavy and wrongful employment in a metaphor-drunk, mythologically impoverished time, which our time relentlessly remains.
The aching beauty of this time of year as it comes to northern born peoples, at least to those not utterly conned by the promise of January beaches as the booby prize for a boreal birth, is the beauty of a time that neither compliments nor condemns people’s plans. The season is another being, another presence. It is a God, nothing less, and the winter God’s presence is neither negotiable nor an extension of how we feel about these shortest days, this blackest sky, this stillest air, or anything else.
Indigenous languages in the boreal corners of the world have elegant names for the particular months or moons of this time of year, and they are neither benign nor an extension of how these people feel about them. Instead, as indigenous ways of live tend to do, they have a precise attention to detail, an inclination to faithful witnessing, and a poetry and sensibility that has the world, not the human, at its centre. The Moon of the Shattering Trees. Now, that is an epic rendering of the thing. Completely accurate too, at least it has been until the climate changes now fully underway began showing themselves. Young trees get cold enough here that, with no prompting from wind, burst, raining bark and kindling down as if riven by lightning. If you are there when it happens you are entirely undone for a while, and the earth is alive again. The Moon of Moaning Ice. If you are out on the ice when it begins to shear and heave purely as a consequence of the darkness of this time of year, you hear our equivalent of whale talk. That is what it sounds like when the great contraction proceeds. The Starving Moon. Just in case you thought that ‘beauty’ means everything gets to live forever, the God of December and the twins that are God’s children come in for their portion and are fed, as every living thing is, by death.
So darkness is not a metaphor for some inner condition of a person, any more than an ancestor is a symbol or an image for how a person might feel about where or who they are from. Darkness – and this is all there is to see and learn, right now – is a living thing. Not a being, exactly. ‘Being’ is too static for this, too focussed on some essence or other. No, darkness is a way that life has of living according to its nature. Darkness is how life comes to know itself best, and we get to see life doing so. Stillness: stillness is how we get to overhear life murmuring to itself. Darkness isn’t where things nefarious and malevolent go to hide, laying in wait for innocence to amble past. It isn’t empty. And stillness isn’t waiting to be interrupted with purposeful sound, a staging area for eloquence or consequence. Stillness is where eloquence is headed. Stillness is eloquence’s midwife, and cradle, and resting place.
Right now it’s about -18C where I am, the sun ablaze and skirting the horizon. Yesterday there were bits of the river that the current had kept open. This morning at first light they were closed and no more. The place where the muskrat sunned himself a few days ago is today black crystal. Tonight the sky will be true, festooned with shards and stars, blue black velvet with light bleeding through from the other side.
As this continues and deepens the river ice amazingly grows down, slowing the water it meets until they join. This courtship goes on every evening and all through the night now, as courtship does. The beavers on the far side of the river are alert to this courtship, and their submarine industry is conjured by it. They venture onto land, which given their hesitations appears to be against their nature, to keep open feed paths below the ice and to reassure themselves that they have places to go should they need them. The wolves are alert to it too: the changes in sound under the pads of their paws is a new kind of stillness now. The ice changes underfoot, and sometimes they end up at the same place the beaver does, at the same time. If you come by later that day, or the next, the only sign of this midnight courtship and the quiet pageant of sustenance it lays out for its kin is a disturbance in the snow, maybe a bit of auburn fur or slate grey undercoat, the source still of the world’s best felt hats. All of this is easily missed if you are out for a walk hurriedly making your way back to warmth, if darkness is just a symbol, if stillness is just an absence.
And it gets better. This kind of darkness and cold makes the air slow down and thicken. And because of that you can hear for miles, if you lay your face on the biting cold as you’d lay your head on the track to catch news of the distant train, half hearing and half feeling. Dressing for these occasions means that your options for adornment and true style abound, layers of material aching for beading or embroidery, something t-shirts and flip-flops don’t know about. Seasonal affective disorder? A clever phrase that, translated, means: intolerance. I know there are remnants of ceremonies afoot in northern climes whose ancestry was engaged in trying to usher out – or force out – darkness and stillness. But these ceremonies were born in a time when human presence perched on the edge of life during those months. This isn’t true now. It isn’t a good story, this banishing of darkness. The story and the ceremonies of solstice have to change, as all the good ones have done, so as to recognize how much we have made the world in our image, to enthrone Darkness and Stillness as the proper visitations of what of the world still survives our presence.
So, all blessings upon the God who shatters trees. All gratitude to the twins of December for their invitation to stillness and to new eyes. And all fortune to you, who lived long enough to see it all, and to your house and your people.