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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Great Darkness

Today is the Winter Solstice, where due to the 17 degree tilt of the earth we in the northern hemisphere have only 9 and a half hours of light but 14 and a half hours of darkness tonight—the longest night of the year. The occasion has been marked and celebrated for millennia by the Taoist tradition of China, and more recently by various people of environmental leanings. Both these disparate groups are convinced that people are healthier and happier when in tune with the larger rhythms of our planet.

They’re right, of course. Our species, like all the others on the planet, evolved within the natural environment. The rhythms of the natural environment—longer, warmer days in the summers, shorter, cooler days in the winters—are built into our physiological processes just as surely as they are into the biology of trees and toads. And just as trees and toads get mixed up and don’t do things properly or well when taken away from these environmental conditions, so with people.

Marking and celebrating the Winter Solstice, then, as well as the other solstice and the equinoxes, keep us aligned with the currents of the natural world that has been our home for as long as we’ve been human (and before, when our ancestors were apes not yet on the line to humans). Keeps us balanced. Makes us feel whole and in touch with our roots—because we are!

Our family has long opened presents on the winter solstice rather than Christmas, as a way to celebrate the solstice and de-emphasize the commercialization of Christmas. Beyond this, we gather on the evening of the Winter Solstice (or the closest we can get to it, when we’re all able to get together) around a large gong I brought back from Korea decades ago, for our family solstice ceremony. Each of us in turn looks back upon the past year, its joys and sorrows, then speaks to what they wish to see in the coming year. We listen closely. Then the person lights a candle and strikes the gong. We all cherish these times.

Others do other things. A group in San Francisco called Reclaiming gathers on the eve of the winter solstice at the ocean to mark the last sunset of the cycle and celebrate the longest night. The National Park Service sponsors walks in Muir Woods and a bonfire the night of the solstice. The poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen initiated a ritual circumambulation of Mount Talalpais in Marin County north of San Francisco five decades ago, a rugged 18-mile day-long ceremony still observed by their spiritual/hiking descendants on the solstices and equinoxes, featuring 10 stops at various rock outcroppings, springs, and viewpoints.

We each mark the occasion in our own way. But it puts us “in mind” of the journey of the planet. It reminds us that darkness and cold have their uses. And it also celebrates that we’ve survived the greatest darkness of the year, and with quickening heart we look forward to the days getting longer and the return of the warmth for the next six months. Happy Solstice!
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