“The cold wind takes our breath away. We stumble and turn our backs to the worst of it. Boreas will howl in our faces all the way home. If we have lived a life of fidelity to the best of that which winter brought forth from us, and if we have watched the other creatures die, then we know that we must die. It will occur to us that we must not need life anymore. We will climb one last time into the frozen mountains of the north and give away all we have left to the wind. Alone, we will enter the circle of our life’s purpose, a purpose defined by a restless search for answers to the ultimate question: How can the people survive? We will die there, at the center of the shield of winter”. – Steven Foster & Meredith Little, The Four Shields of Human Nature
Today I planted wildflower seeds in my garden*. Larkspur, poppies, flax and some unknown seeds I found in a small paper bag tucked in the back of the kitchen drawer. Although it is late in the season, and this morning the meadow was covered with frost, my instincts led me outside to the garden. If all goes well, the mulch will protect these hibernating embryos from the cold clutches of winter.
In truth, I am no gardener. My attentiveness and patience for tending a garden is almost nil. My mind drifts into clouds and books, inflated by big ideas, not into the ground. Like right now, even as I dig, I cannot stop from thinking there are more important things I should be doing, like saving our species from self-destruction. I must do whatever it takes. I am caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts, hastened by the urgency of the shortest day of the year. Hastened by this long dark night of hatred and greed. So, why am I playing in the dirt?
By all rational means, these few plants won’t make a difference in the bigger scheme of things. They won’t reverse global warming or soften the hearts of politicians. They won’t feed the poor or heal the sick. Nevertheless, as I kneel in the wet dirt, laying seed by tiny seed, I slowly come to realize that these little pods of life may very well be the most sacred things on Earth. I cover them gently and softly, I sing a lullaby, and try to forget about spring.
The winter solstice pulls us into the darkest and coldest of all the four seasons. As the sun sets, I brace myself for the long haul and against the frigidity of lost innocence and eternal summers. These seeds may never sprout. And it is damn well possible that we, as a species, won’t make it either. Every turn around the wheel, winter reminds us that death is real, as real as it gets. Animals and plants die during winter. Some freeze, some starve. And humans are no exception. If we don’t die this year, eventually our time will come (and for some, the time comes much too soon). Winter is a season of stripped down humility and unconcealed grace.
And so we plant our seeds, whatever that means to whoever is doing the seeding – tending the hearth, writing the book, signing the petition. Nurturing each little kernel that may never come to fruition. In the true essence of winter, these are not acts of false hope or imprudent heroism. Rather, they are expressions of good human character. It is our freedom that no one can take away.
We die in the center of our life’s purpose, a purpose, writes Steven and Meredith, “defined by a restless search for answers to the ultimate question: How can the people survive?” Paradoxically, I think, the question is the answer, a crack in the door, and a reminder that there is a force at work much bigger than my pea brain can ever fathom.
Who knows? A billion years from now, these tiny little seeds may give birth to a forest.
*Gratitude to Gina Jensen for giving me the seeds and inspiration.