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.

Reference:

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

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