In Wisconsin one of the wondrous realizations the winter solstice season allows is our ability to see the structure of deciduous trees. There is no better place to understand this than during a quiet walk in the winter woods. The leaves have long since joined the duff on the forest floor and the structural magnificence of ash, basswood, cherry, hickory, maple and oak are wholly on display, base to crown. To these are added the smaller contributors, those understory grace notes exemplified by hazels and the minor cherry species.
Amid all of this, the conifers retain the dark mysteries of the summer woodlands fast within the green of their foliage. During winter solstice we bring conifers into our homes and cover them with light to simultaneously encounter and counter what we cannot wholly understand. We have done this since the beginning of our time; an eclipse of the moon is caused by a giant, celestial lizard; a restive volcano is a sign that the gods are angry, into the darkest night of our northern hemisphere year we introduce any available source of light. In the beginning this habit was understandable for even the simplest things were mysterious. Today it is the equivalent of outsourcing our autonomy.
On a clear winter solstice night when you are out among the trees and shrubs and come into a clearing you will see the winter sky above you and realize that even if you have gone out by yourself you are not alone, that there is, as the poet William Wordsworth put it, “A Spirit in the woods.” If you take Wordsworth literally; believe that a spirit arises from the woods you are a pantheist; “pan” from the Greek god Pan, who was said to watch over shepherds and hunters, “theist” relating to the belief in a god or many gods. Consider also pantheism, the worship of many gods, among them my beloved Cosmic Muffin.
A tree reaches out and up from its roots for reasons other than the biological imperative relating to its need for light. A tree is also a gift to us, a lesson in first standing tranquil, strong and alone among others before opening into a crown of branches that touch and interact with those about it. We are the trunk of a tree. Our insatiable spirit of inquiry is the crown formed by its branches. This lesson is particularly evident in deciduous trees viewed in a winter woodlot. On a clear night the lesson is amplified by the planets, constellations and galaxies that wheel in perfect order above us.
Away from city light on a clear night during the span of winter solstice celebrations, the constellations Taurus and Orion dominate the sky in a westward traverse followed by Gemini and Canis Minor. The Milky Way separates those pairs with wonder enough to last a forever of winter nights and seeing it perhaps you will understand why we have the strange habit of paying for diamonds.
And always beneath the wonders of the universe, the trees of the forest’s winter night that affirm what Robert Frost wrote so famously while stopping during an evening of the winter solstice during the early 1920s, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep.”
One of the promises we should make to ourselves during winter solstice is to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing when we assign Pan to shepherds, find spirits in the woods or equate stars with diamonds. When we do those seemingly harmless things we should acknowledge that we are simply trying, each in our own way, to order the phenomena we sense but that continue to defy our sensibilities.
On a midnight clear during winter solstice season woodlots are lovely, dark and deep as the enveloping night. To be able to stand within them–strong and alone–is to receive the best gift imaginable, the realization that each of us carries within the only light we’ll ever need.
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal: