Sunday, December 7, 2014

Winter Dark & Light

Night falls; we turn on lights and electronics, extending day in the dark of the year. And what a boon, though an oddment in seasonal and circadian rhythms. Do we sleep as well as our ancestors did?  I wonder.

In light pollution cities especially, we haven't much awareness beyond the street corner. We miss stars wheeling and meteor showers, and the long contemplative nights of Northern Hemisphere winter.

Out walking on a recent chilly morning, snow lingering on north slopes and sides of conifers, I stopped to admire second year woody stalks of mullein (Verbascum thapsus) on a steep bank. And thought about light!

The flower stalks had elongated and bloomed bright yellow, a grandmother herb, the petals steeped in oil for earache.

Birds savor the autumnal seed, and the dried stalks were gathered for winter infrastructure before whale oil lamps and Thomas Edison. 

Dipped in fat, they were burned as torches in the long ago when wolves howled and things went bump in the winter's night.
winning photo 2012

Mullein's first-year rosette of gray-green velvety summer leaves were once collected and used for body warmth: shoe-insoles in medieval Europe!

Night falls, in this era of compact fluorescents and plasma screens, and we don't know it on a body level, nor the apparent miracle of light returning on the Winter Solstice.

The worldwide and ancient feasts of light, may seem a little fatuous in our facsimile world of 24 hour light. We dust off plastic garlands, wreaths and trees, with little sense of the night hours increasing.

On an obliquely related note, I've never cared for ornamental dogs with pea-brains. I value the intelligence of working dogs; a Norwegian elkhound guarded my organic farm, livestock, plantings and me.

My attitude toward yip-yips settled into bedrock early on when my dad and I went looking for a real Christmas tree in ticky-tacky California.

I had been fortunate as a child to roam forests in a simpler time, and on our Christmas tree search, Father and I could not find a plain green tree! Went to several lots before we did. 

Conifers were "flocked" that year: a faux-snow in cerise, chartreuse or purple! 

I was already in agony when a woman drove up in a Cadillac, a toy poodle on her arm, the creature's tufties festively red-ribboned. To complete the ensemble, it sported a rhinestone collar. (I think it was rhinestone, but in la la land, who knows?) 

She pushed to the front of the line and demanded a flocked tree, a special order: to be dyed charcoal-gray to match her poodle! 

Daddy and I blinked, bought a pitiful un-flocked pine and fled...

Down home in the here and now, how do we honor the light's return, the return of spring and blossom, when most of us in the West have no clue about the dark?

In my months of tenting and no electric light, the sun set, and unless a campfire had been built, night fell with a thud. Birdsong meant dawn was near.

I live now in a small mountain community close to the land and to seasons, and light is a big deal. Families still remember lamp light here.

I met friends in the Old Town last night for wintry festivities, a rich-mix of silliness, firelight and camaraderie. 

We watched a hoot of a magical outdoor fashion show: vintage and theater sort of gowns and one stunning ballerina who soared onto the models' runway doing Sugar Plum Fairy! 

We sat on a bench covered with a long sheepskin, a bonfire close by. 

An old meandering lane of adobe art galleries is lit in celebration each year with luminarias* along the walkways, inner courtyard gardens and rooftops. (Boy Scouts do the lighting at dusk.) Many stone-circle fires, caroling, cider and hot chocolate. 

On Christmas Eve, huge iconic bonfires will be lit at the adobe Pueblo, a community in continuous habitation for a thousand years. Firewood is gathered in the spring, weak trees culled and cut on their sacred mountain.

They do see the stars wheel and the moon wax and wane. 

Light and dark and the elders teach the young, those willing to learn, about land, honorable harvest to preserve bounty and their kiva-deep ancestral memory of earth cycles.

image: Jane Grover

For winter's reading,
for timeless stories:

* Luminarias, the candles set in sand in paper sacks lining pathways, are called "farolitos" in northern New Mexico.


At December 8, 2014 at 11:34 AM , Blogger Wayfarer said...

A savvy country cousin has reminded me about mullein leaf tea for asthma (the dried leaves are also smoked.)

Her little boy had his first paying job, weeding for an old lady. He was going after dandelions and chickweed, and had his paw around fuzzy gray-green leaves, when she whacked the back of his hand with her cane: "No, son, that's mullein, for asthma tea."

The boy's long grown and a Daddy, but he can still identify mullein!


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