Winter is for Dreaming

Small log cabin in a snowy forest landscape

This post was first published in Teton Valley Top to Bottom’s 1999 Winter Edition, then reposted here on Earthfire Institute’s website in February 2017. We share it again today in honor of the arrival of a new winter and the dreams and stories that will come from it. 

It’s snowing today, a thick, gentle snow. I have just returned from a visit to my very old mother, her life force strong despite her aged body. At first light, the moon was a pale luminescent orb in a pale white sky—harbinger of a coming storm. For now, there is only the still soft falling of white flakes drifting down from the heavens. It started slowly, tentatively, filling the air with exquisite crystals. Covering. Protecting.

I read an article years ago that stayed in my mind—I cut it out to save it but never could find it again. It talked about how peoples of the Far North pass the long, dark Arctic nights in a half-waking, drifting, dreaming sleep up to 15 hours a day. It’s a semi-meditation, a natural meditation, a time for self-renewal in preparation for the activity of long summer days. It resonated within me, the speaking to a truth of how we operate, of how we access the source of the creative process, of how we connect to something beyond us but of which we are a part and an expression.

Ever since, I have looked forward to winter as the dark and dreaming season, a time of relief from the staccato cacophony of modern-day life. It’s a time for unbounded dreaming; for suspending disbelief and the overlay of civilization to reach back towards a richer, deeper source; for wonderings overshadowed by the demands of life; for loosening the tight, precise connections, the directed attention required by everyday reality. During the long dawning of light, it’s the chance to enjoy the dream-like thoughts and images of the time between sleeping and waking, energy flowing in the space between thoughts, rivulets wandering where they will, seeking to find each other, to coalesce into insight when the time is right.

Reveries counterbalance our capacities for sharp, intense focus and the directing purpose of will. It is a quieting time, allowing us to tend to surges of feelings and knowing from deep within us—to connect with an age-old knowledge, with the stream of living things, with life itself. Creativity takes place in cell time, outside clock time—slowly exploring, feeling, smelling one’s way. Understandings well-up like the rich nutrients of the deep oceans, to provide nourishment for a wild profusion of life. Ancient parts of the brain follow their own pace and path, listening, tuning to something older still.

Decades ago, I sat on a balcony overlooking the South China Sea at a harvest moon-watching party. As the full moon rose, a guest commented, “Art is reaching towards the eternal.” Perhaps that’s why we want beauty around us, why beauty soothes. There are interweavings there—beauty, creativity, renewal, being part of something larger, tuning to slower rhythms, longer cycles.

The long twilights and nights dim the outer world, drawing us inward, giving us the gift of time to sense these rhythms, to tend to subtle energies and delicate connections broken, torn, and disrupted during the urgent necessities and little violences of daily living; a time of rest and repair before emerging into the vibrant light of spring. The riot of life is stilled and existence stripped down to its core. Sap in trees draws down to the roots. Creatures sleep. Living beings wait, quiescent.

In the dead of winter begin the first intimations of new life as urges within press upwards from unknown depths and ages. In the dark, cold, long nights of the year, snow-covered and still, begin the mating of the wolves. In the wombs of bears, tiny beings grow, seeded last summer, an ounce or two of distinct presence protected inside the mothering one. In the heart of darkness, a glimmer of light; in utter stillness, the stirrings of life renewing itself.

Creatures of the snow thrive, jubilant in the season and the cold—the snowshoe-footed lynx triumphs at last over its aggressive cousin the bobcat as it leaps effortlessly through clouds of powder. The wolverine, tireless, travels over the frozen landscape, at home in the sub-zero cold. Resourceful and determined, it caches sustenance along its winter route, feeding off those that have succumbed to the forces of winter. Far away now are the cool, bright green of moist meadows and forest, the scents of pine and leaves and flowers, the laughing of flower-bordered streams running over rocks.

Log cabin in a snowstorm
Earthfire's office during a winter storm • Photo by Earthfire Institute

Warming by a fire, I think of a fine archaeologist who spent his life re-creating and living the lifestyle of early peoples to better understand on a real and practical level the hunter-gatherer life. At the end of each hard day of lodge building, tool making, hunting and digging, he and his students would gather for the evening meal and unconsciously begin to make music using the rhythms of the day. Their tools and the natural objects around them were their instruments. One would join in, then another, then another as they talked about the day, the rhythm of each adding to the other, resonating in harmony. And they would begin to tell stories woven from the fabric of their days. I think we long for the cadence, rhythm, and companionship of a group forged by the need for survival against the elements, each an appreciated and important part. If we were a tribe, the moaning winds of winter would pull us closer together, the sense of haven, fellowship and warmth helping to cement and build a common history, tales, and myths. I wonder if that is the way cultures are born.

By flickering firelight, I dispense with reason and stroking him lovingly, tell my dog Chinook the story of his creation. If I had children, I’d tell them. If I had a tribe, I’d tell them—and listen as my own creation story was told. Endless nights by the fire would yield myths of a person, a family, several families, evolving into a culture with its own myths, tailored to the people and their history and their personalities, flavored as each culture is with its own unique qualities. I speak to my Chinook, nicknamed Chookie, of how he came into existence in a lovely light-filled summer mountain meadow, and was born as a fat, healthy sausage to a young and anxious first-time mother; how he was the smallest and shyest of his tribe but his human mother saw who he was and he was allowed to stay. And so he came to live with the family of his birth and have many adventures. The story of the Chookie became part of the family lore, passed down through the generations. The Chookie could hear the story over and over and never tire of it. It was a simple story and a short one, but it was enough—just the right size for him—and he lay by the fire and soaked it all in, breathing deeply and peacefully, and it was good and all was well. He loves it, listens attentively, tuning to the cadence, tone, and feeling of a story and attention directed just to him. And over time, the legend of the Chookie is elaborated and passes into myth.

The flakes are coming in ever-thicker profusion, gusts of wind picking up swirls of snow. I must go out and be in that exhilaration—heart pounding, alive, flakes stinging, air electric. Later, in the gathering dusk, I walk towards the mysterious dark green of the pines. The wind is raging, the hurtling, stinging missiles of snowflakes stripped of all but their center. All around is wailing, blasting white. I look back from the howling dark at the warm glow of the cabin. Do animals feel the same sensations as they seek and find shelter? There is a sense of kinship—our elemental needs are the same. I hope they are safe tonight.

It is snowing in tiny flakes now, in the small hours of the morning. It is bitter cold outside. I dream of limpid, luminous golden afternoons. It’s a good time to write, in the silence before the dawn, seeking words with the nuances and reverberations that all together make a symphony, the interconnections and rounding back around and pulling together into a multifaceted, gleaming whole. Focusing the beam of consciousness on inchoate knowing and feelings from the depths, I feel my way towards clarification; expression.

Just a few flakes linger. The snow is clearing, a stillness in its passing. In the cold pink dawn, I go out, the Tetons standing watch, their sharply etched silhouettes softened by the mist from my breath. The skin stings and nostrils pinch. I walk across glittering powder towards the pines; frosted silent sentinels. To the left, a movement—turning, I watch the dancing graceful play of light that is a fox. Voles scurry in white crystalline tunnels. Winter dreams.

Two red foxes in the snow
Foxes in the snow • Photo by Michael O'Neal

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