Paying Homage to the Dark

Forest 1

Since moving from southern to northern California, the winter solstice no longer passes by without my notice. Although it is only 500 hundred miles from L.A. to these foothills in the Sierra, the terrain is vastly different, at least to my provincial mind. The darkness of the early afternoon, the mulch of soggy oak leaves, the fluorescent green mossy rocks, and the sticky red ground are visceral reminders that this is not the sunny and arid landscape of my home down south. Here, most days, I don’t even see the horizon behind the dense growth of forest. Some mornings the small meadow across the dirt road is covered in crystalline ice, and not even Nora, the semi-feral ranch dog wants to go outside. In this new place, the solstice is not a metaphor for death and rebirth. It really is death and rebirth. Plants die or go dormant, the garden lies hidden, tucked under the mulch of memory, the trees stand bare. And, on this shortest day of the year, the sun bows so low, and for so long, that it appears to stand still, taking a pause, before lifting itself again, gradually, slowly warming the earth back to life with each extended day.


But before I turn my attention to the much-desired light, I want to linger in the dark for a while, on the waning side of the solstice. I want to stop and take in the musty damp air, and listen to the sound of cold water that flows in the river below, even if the river has been dammed and the waters mostly siphoned.  Sitting on this moss-covered stone, I ponder the disquieting darkness of these times, as well as the mystery hibernating within the darkness of Earth’s womb. On the surface, it looks so dire, but underneath, something is stirring, rousing from a long deep sleep. It feels feminine, fertile, and inexhaustible.

The Valley Spirit never dies.

This is called the mysterious female.

The gateway of the mysterious female

Is called the root of heaven and earth.

Dimly visible, it seems as if it were there,

Yet use will never drain it.

Tao Te Ching

The word “solstice” comes from the Latin and means “sun stand still.” When at the crossroads between dark and light, the sun does appear to hold still for a few days, as if contemplating which way to turn.  What would happen if, after billions of years, it chose to take the road of darkness rather than light? This is a real concern when you think about it. We know we can’t control the sun; we can’t force it to turn one way or another. We simply have to rely on its gracious return. It is from this inability to control the forces of life, I believe, that has led us humans to create ceremony. At least in its original intention, and in many of its forms, ceremony is a tangible way to respect and honor the life that has been given to us, and it is an appeal that life may continue. Ceremony helps us remember that we are dependent on Nature for everything.



Ancient winter solstice ceremonies, in particular, demonstrate this appeal for life’s continuance following the death of sun’s yearly cycle. One of the oldest solstice ceremonies is the Yule feast (Dec 25th) of the Old Norse, who made their supplication for life through sacrifice, feasting, and an enactment of the wild hunt. During Saturnalia (Dec 17th – 24th) the ancient Romans held a feast in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and abundance. In the Old Persian Mithraic tradition, we find the festival of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun (Dec. 25th). And, of course, much of these European ceremonies have evolved into our current Christianized version of Christmas, the birth of the Son of Light. Closer to home, on what is now called California, the Chumash people practice winter solstice ceremonies using a sun stick (Hutash) to entice the sun into the Earth’s center before resurfacing onto its rightful course toward spring.

Winter solstice ceremonies celebrate the return of the light, both as a reality (we need the sun) but also as a metaphor for the evolving human awareness of our relationship with the natural world. We cannot see without the light. We cannot know ourselves, or the world, without the sun’s illumination.  Without the light, we remain unconscious.

Forest 2

But we also need the dark, and this is where I began. Lingering. Resting. Here in the dim forest, I don’t see as much as I feel. I don’t think as much as I sense. I can barely hear the soft rustle of leaves, the hidden deer walking nearby, the faint trickle of the river down below. Yes, in all its obscurity, it is evident that there is a lot of life in these woods, and I want to know more about it.

Recently, I discovered Sharon Blackie’s book, “If Women Rose Rooted,” (Thanks to my Irish friend, Cris) in which she writes, “Darkness is not simply a lack of light. Darkness is alive, and its life is obscured by light. Darkness puts out its tentacles and touches your face: darkness licks at your eyes and grants you a different kind of sight. Darkness is the voice of the shadow, a voice which words can only fail. Listen. Is it the drumming of your own heart that you hear, or the long, slow heartbeat of the Earth?”

In more elusive terms, Jung writes, “Everything that the darkness thinks, grasps, and comprehends by itself is dark; therefore it is illuminated only by what, to it, is unexpected, unwanted, and incomprehensible” (Vol. 14, p. 255).

In other words, while it may be the dark that contains the unexpected, unwanted, and incomprehensible, it is also that which illuminates and grants us the ability to see what is hidden there.

While many creation stories focus on the light that emerges from the darkness  (Genesis, for example), I was happy to learn that there are also stories that speak of the reverse: The darkness that emerges from the light. In these stories, creation begins in the light, and the darkness is needed to bring balance to an overly bright world where nobody can sleep.  One of these stories is from Melanesia in which a god named Qat sets about creating the world, carving people from wood, making the oceans and jungles, fishes and animals. The one thing Qat cannot create, though, is the night. After listening to the complaints from his brothers about the relentless, endless daylight, Qat sets out in his canoe to look for the night. Eventually, on a remote set of islands, he finds the night and in exchange for a pig, is given a piece of it. As Qat paddles back to his island with the portion of the night in his satchel, the sun begins to fade, and the skies grow dark.  Qat’s brothers become terrified.

“What is spreading and covering the sky?”

“This is night,” Qat says. “Lie down and keep quiet.”

Qat’s brothers lie down and soon felt sleepy.

“Are we dying?”

“This is sleep” *

Forest 3

Reading the story of Qat and his brothers, I try to imagine what it would be like to never sleep, to always be in a state of alert consciousness, to live without dreams.  It seems to me, that in a perpetual sunny state, the world would be a nightmare. Perhaps, yes, in the everlasting light there would be no need for suffering, no grief, no agonizing self-doubt, no wounds to speak of. But there would also be no complexity, no layers, no gradations or nuances. There would be no mystery. We would live in a nothing but “what you see is what you get” world.  And the sunrise would be nothing but an expected moment of the day, to be taken for granted. No need to make appeals. No need for ceremony.

On this eve of winter solstice, I therefore, give my respects to the dark. I pay homage to all things unknown, to all the hard times and disappointments, to the embarrassments, mistakes, confusions, and the million little deaths.  I bow especially low to the suffering of this earth, its beings, and humanity.  And, in doing so, I crush despair.  I silence the empty voices that tell me life is meaningless. Despair is not dark. Rather, despair is nothingness. Or, better put, despair is “nothing-but-ness,” a symptom of scorching hot rationalism. Despair is when a tree is nothing but another tree, a river nothing but another river, a drop of water nothing but another drop of water, or when a young girl dies at the border she becomes nothing but another casualty, another accident among countless others.

The dark is subversive, wild, and feminine, like a voice echoing from the womb.  It is a dream that reaches down into the sweet black and fertile earth and pulls up a sprig of new life, while the sun rises to meet us.


*Adapted from A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age, by Bruce Watson.

The Cultural Legacy of the Big Lie in Modern Rites of Passage

It has been nearly a year since I’ve published any new posts on this blog. To let you know that I am still breathing, I’m adding this piece that I recently wrote for the School of Lost Border’s webpage. It speaks a lot to what I have been thinking about these days and so I deem it qualifies for a good post. I appreciate your visit. – Betsy


The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or “horned god“, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen

We need new stories, new terms and conditions that are relevant to the love of land, a new narrative that would imagine another way, to learn the infinite mystery and movement at work in the world.

– Linda Hogan, Chickasaw poet, writer, and environmentalist

 In the earliest beginnings of our ancestral lineages, we all have biological and spiritual rootedness indigenous to this planet.   Not one of us is born somewhere else besides Earth.  And yet, down through the centuries, in both subtle and not so subtle ways, many of us have been told that we are not of this place; that we are different, and thus separate, from the natural world in which we live.  Steven Foster, co-founder of The School of Lost Borders, called this “the Big Lie”. Birthed in fear and greed, the Big Lie is a destructive story based on the fallacy of human supremacy, and one that has contributed to countless traumas, brutal colonization, and environmental devastation throughout the world.  For most of us with European ancestral roots, the Big Lie is a big part of our inheritance.

Our legacy is biting at our heals, urgently reminding us that we must cultivate a new story, one that speaks of connection to place, of love and reciprocity, of our being no different, nor better, than any other human or species. As a collective of people from many walks of life, this is a common goal within the community of the School of Lost Borders.  And we take heart from the countless others around the world who feel the same way, no matter their background, status, religion, race, or gender. No matter how they choose to identify themselves.

As a group of mostly white people, we are painfully aware of the history of colonization and the subsequent cultural misappropriation that has been forced upon those who are indigenous to the lands where we do our work. This awareness is both welcome and difficult to hold.  In an age of sustained racism and environmental destruction, it is vitally important to continue to bring into our consciousness any harm we have done, and blindly continue to do because of our cultural standing and positioning.  It is for this reason that we encourage all those who participate in our programs, to look carefully into their ancestry as best they can, to generate relevant rituals of their own, and to develop some knowledge of, and relationship with, the land on which they practice – including its beings and its people.


Roman fresco showing Bacchus (on the left) and serpent (Agathodaimon) from the Casa del Centenario in Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples)

Furthermore, we stress that a rite of passage ceremony is not solely a Native American practice, or any other particular group, but rather a human practice. It is encoded onto our psyche by the natural world and the seasonal cycles of death and rebirth. From Australia to South Africa, to the northernmost regions of the Arctic to Ancient Greece, rite of passage ceremonies have been enacted throughout time and place.   Although most of us have lost connection with the ancient rites of our forebears, we know that our task is to revive them as best we can in modern dress. We may never get it exactly right.  And in the process, we will fumble and make mistakes. The tribes have been scattered too far.  However, the archetype of initiatory rites demands a response, so we move ahead slowly, carefully, to bring this life-giving ceremony to those who yearn for it. Too much is at stake to do nothing.

And may we be clear; it is not our intention to perpetuate skewed versions of individualism often seen in many of the self-help movements today. On the other hand, we do believe that each person has a unique character, or gift, to nurture and bring to the world.  As with all rite of passage ceremonies, the goal is always to be in service to the greater community, not just human, but to all life.  Rites of passage are not about fulfilling one’s unmet needs, but instead, to awaken one’s consciousness to act responsibly toward self, other, mystery, and the sacred.  To help create the new story, longing to be told.


Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain © UNESCO

Tending Winter’s Garden

“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.

Stories in the Land

In 1998, my friend Cindi Alvitre and I received a small teaching fellowship from the Orion Society called Stories in the Land. At the time I was a school counselor at the small K-12 public school in my hometown of Avalon. Many years before this, while I was still a kid, my father, Norman Perluss, was the counselor at the same school, and like me, he grew up in Avalon; having walked the same road to school each morning as I did, having sat in the same classrooms as me.  Avalon is located on Catalina Island, about thirty miles off the coast of Southern California. Because of the island’s unique location, it seemed fitting that the Orion Society would offer us a fellowship to help local students foster a sense of place. Soon, we were taking groups of teenagers into the hills of the island, researching the personal and deep history of a place we called home. I eventually wrote this experience up in a fieldwork paper for a class at Pacifica Graduate Institute. You can read it here.

Catalina Islander, September 1998

It wasn’t until I left the island to attend college that I realized how deeply attached to place I was. Who was I outside familiar territory? I always referred to myself by the place where I lived. The smell of seaweed and coastal white sage, the chortle of raven, and the pounding of waves had fine-tuned my sensory awareness, the lens through which I saw myself and the world. When I first left the island, I had no back setting for my existence. No context to carry and “I”.  Whoever I was, was floating in air.

Eventually, I learned to make new friends and to create new stories in new places. I found some grounding. But the island remains the birthing spot of my identity, shaping the way I move through the world, directing my attention and filling my dreams. It is this attachment to place, to the land, that eventually led me to the School of Lost Borders and to Pacifica Graduate Institute where I wrote my dissertation on Landscape Archetypes. Even my interest in Jungian Psychology emerged from a longing for place, knowing that the Self coagulates in location. The conniunctio of spirit and matter.

Our stories do live in the land. When we live long enough in a place, every step we take triggers a memory. This is where my dog ran off chasing a pig. This is where my brother and I dove under the dense kelp. This is where my father taught me to drive our old Pinto station wagon. This is where my uncle died. And so on. Our memories don’t float away; they dig themselves into the ground.

Speaking of indigenous people’s even deeper sense of place, Keith Basso confirms,

“For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth – in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields – which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think”.

I can barely imagine the extent of despair for those who are exiled from place ten, twenty, a hundred generations deep.

But the stories continue to be created, told, and absorbed by the land. I often speculate as to why so many people who attend our California programs at the School of Lost Borders effortlessly fall in love with the Owens Valley, the School’s original home. Indeed, the place is magically stunning in its beauty, but there is something unique about the attachment to this particular place than say, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. It is an intimacy that goes beyond the appreciation of beauty. I believe the tether is the thousands of stories that have been told under the pinion pines and junipers, the countless walks in the local meadows and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

It is this love of place that, perhaps, allows us to bear witness to the stories of immense loss and grief told to us by the Big Pine Paiute people, those who have lived here much longer than any of us can dare to claim. And, certainly, we “newbies” have contributed, directly or indirectly, to the loss of place through colonization and greed. And yet, in the listening, as difficult as it may be, our stories get woven in too. This is where I first learned of stolen water. This is where I sat; butt on the ground, when I felt the grief of my own displacement. This is where I helped pull weeds in the garden.

All meaningful transitons and rites of passage happen in a place. As far as I’m concerned, all true ceremonies are bioregional. They are fashioned by the rainfall, the shape of the hillsides and canyons, the particular plants that grow by the creek. Ceremonies are created from the stories that have been told before, the ancestral bones buried in the land and in our hearts. To strip Ceremony from place is a lobotomy of soul, making us deaf and blind to our own humanness. To be nature, human nature, wild and whole, is to be steadfastly storied in the land. It is never too late to tell a good story.


Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press

Stories in the Land Fieldtrip, Two Harbors, Catalina Island, 1999