|On California Seasons
16 December 2003
Midwinter Solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. Although it is the first day of winter on our calendars, it marks the slow returning of the light. We know of calendars as old as 30,000 years, but long was the time when the mechanism of the turning year was a mystery. And humans, thinking always of their agency, engaged in rituals and propitiations to make the sun burn bright again. It always worked.
But in a deeper way, the turning of the seasons remains mysterious. I watch the leaves go gold, the white frost come, then little heads of ferns emerging in our woods. This all is understood, of course, and yet I think it quite amazing that it happens at all, and that I am situated in such a world. When I first came to California twenty-five years ago, I despaired of the apparent absence of the seasons.
they say the
here they know less
and my spirit needs
make me all red and
gold, my dreamer
for a gull is not a
After many years I began to see the seasons changing here. It seemed - and still does - that autumn links hands with spring and winter is a snowy whisper. Before the fallen leaves have gone brown the first wild irises have put up their green shoots. Yellow mustard flowers announce themselves in orchards close to New Year's day. I learned that summer is sun and winter is rain, mostly. I learned that in a wetsuit, you can have the ocean to yourself in January.
Hilary was small, we used to take baby Brooke in her carriage down a
rutted trail to the next canyon, where two bridges crossed two
converging creeks, overarched by big-leaf maples and framed with
exuberant moss on ancient oaks. We would sit and listen to the white
water sing and I would hug a redwood tree and stare up its incredible
height to the deep blue sky beyond. One day in early spring we made
our rounds and noticed ladybugs - thousands, millions of ladybugs -
congregating on the little bridge. They would come in December and
leave in March, sometimes returning for a second party. This was my
girls' first sex-education moment. One day when Hilary was 4 or 5 we
had returned from the bridge and I began to see ladybugs crawling
everywhere. I opened her little backpack and found thousands of them.
She wanted to bring them home. We took them back to the bridge. And
they return to party every year.
I grew up in an Indiana suburb populated mostly by WW II veterans and their families. There will still woods around in the mid-50s, and I remember picking violets and Sweet William with my mother and making little lace cones filled with flowers to hang on people's doorknobs just before dawn on Mayday. My mother knew nothing of the Beltaine tradition we now celebrate, but something of Mayday had passed down to her from her German and Irish roots. Now the woods there are gone. The high school I attended is an office park and the roller rink has been rolled over by a WalMart. There are still lovely hills in the south of the state, ringed by Dairy Queens and McDonald's.
land is too steep for WalMart. It is even too steep for suburbs. I
used to wonder why anyone would be crazy enough to live on the fault
line, much less in a house on poles hanging over a canyon in the
woods. Now I know the answer: because we are in Nature. I didn't even
discover the full moon in Indiana until I was on a Girl Scout camping
trip. Shock and awe: I cast a shadow in the moonlight. I remember it
like a movie. My little house was hemmed in by suburban carports and
streetlights, cooled by air conditioning with sealed windows, lit by
a flickering television rather than a good oak fire. And so, although
I left the place of seasons, I have come to the heart of Nature, and
it has taught me the meaning of "sacred." And yes, oh yes,
there are seasons, and parts of days where everything turns, and
phases of the moon and the rising and falling of constellations. I am
Now the children are grown, about to fly, and Rob and I remain resolved to stay here, to die here if possible, among these trees and birds and creeks and chuckling quail, as conversations among owls and coyotes cross overhead and chimes call out the shape of the wind. Our great good fortune amazes us, and the world is full of wonder.
loved ones are with us this eve
morning sun will draw them forth,
days will lengthen toward the spring,