In a year that’s cracked me open (like this cracked tree trunk), the week of the winter solstice feels full of possibility: renewing of light, changing of seasons, warming of spirits. I’ve found that sense of possibility most profound in the winter woods, where the natural world has so much to teach—and I have so much to learn—again and again and again.
Too often, I focus on disliking winter and the cold, dark, and snow that go along with it. But this year, in the midst of the pandemic and uprisings and longings for justice—longings to divest from whiteness (and all interconnected systems of oppression) and to invest instead in deep, structural change—I’m learning about winter’s necessary role in making change. I’m learning to appreciate winter for its lessons in reflection, retreat, and recommitment. I’m learning that rest and reflection are non-negotiable partners, and, luckily, winter supports them both. Here’s a view into what this learning looks like.
Walking in the Winter Woods: Lessons from Nature
A light snow fell a few days ago, only to be covered by freezing rain that left the forest blanked in white.
The temptation to leave the muddy trail and step into snow was too much. And through playful wandering, I found that each step produced a satisfying crunch: satisfying in the way popping bubble wrap pleases the soul.
Crunch by crunch, step by step, I began to notice forest details, beginning with animal tracks. My curiosity piqued: Are these from a fox?* And these from a raccoon?
With curiosity directing every step, I observed light streaming through bare trees and tan fungi that’s now conspicuous against white.
Then, the truly incredible happened: a red-headed woodpecker allowed me to pass within a few feet: in under the 6-feet COVID-distancing space. The bird perched near the ground, on a snow-covered log. The bird watched me. I watched the bird. “Hello, friend. I haven’t seen you since spring, though surely, you’ve been here all summer and fall. Have you seen me? How are you wintering this year?”
You see, I’ve been thinking about “wintering”—the verb, the practice, the intention—for a few weeks now, since writing group members recommended the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. I’ve been savoring the audiobook and considering how much happens (how much potential arises) within wintering times. I’m considering in new ways how we go within ourselves (like burrowing into the ground) in times of winter. This sort of retreat is not to withdraw from the world or see ourselves as individuals without collective responsibilities, but to do difficult emotional work, to integrate learnings, and to show up renewed: grounded into who we are, what matters, and why.**
This walk in the woods reminded me of how much changes season-to-season. Since the pandemic started in early 2020, I’ve walked this trail almost weekly, and I’ve seen baby toads grow big and then disappear. I’ve watched the trail narrow as ferns and foliage took over in summer. One day a golden eagle caught and ate a grass snake nearby. That same day an owl watched me from multiple angles with curious expressions, so I wondered if I was of interest to the owl, as the eagle and snake had been of interest to me.
Through the fall, I noticed week to week how the trail again widened, while the days shortened. And then snow appeared, changing the forest again and reminding me of summer, of all the seasons. Like in summer, the winter woods share signs of life all around: life represented through animals tracks and fungi and the woodpecker’s visible red against white. I’m left wondering what lies under the snow’s surface, not just waiting for spring but made possible because of these quieter, darker days.
How might dormancy, incubation, and hibernation be part of (re)birth? How is life made possible because of this wintering time? How might winter provide the necessary conditions for resetting, regenerating, and even, perhaps most importantly, recommitting?
Certainly, winter is part of the full life cycle, and certainly, it teaches that grief, sorrow, and rage are absolutely necessary (no tyranny of positivity here). This year I’m especially alerted to the potential held within winter: it offers wisdom about non-negotiable rest paired with reflection.
Continuing to Reflect: Questions for Wintertime
May this winter—and these days surrounding the solstice and new year—allow for reflecting and refueling for the work we’re called to, personally and collectively.
With the possibilities of wintering in mind, I’m asking myself many questions, and I invite you, too, to consider:
- What have I learned and unlearned in 2020? And what am I ready to learn and unlearn in 2021?
- How am I moving through fear? And what fears need attention?
- How am I honoring grief and other emotions defining of this year? And what emotional, contemplative, and shadow work is needed this winter?
- In what ways are my commitments guiding my life this year? And how can I better live out my commitments?
- What’s been seeded in 2020? And what’s asking to be sprouted (watered and tended and creatively grown) in the new year?
Toward continuing to reflect and to channel reflections into creation, I’m also excited about upcoming writing retreats, which include time for journaling and creating: for what this season is inviting. Perhaps you’ll join me as a way to honor your own winter?
I send love along with these wintry reflections, as I hope to continue learning from the winter woods and prioritizing reflection, retreat, and recommitment.
After seeing these animal tracks and identifying them as most likely fox, I then found fox scat on the trail and drove by a dead fox on the way home from hiking. I later pulled sumac (the fox card) when using The Plant Spirit Oracle Deck and saw a fox when scrolling through Instagram. Finally, I dreamed about red foxes (deep orange in shade), making clear to me that the keen insights and creativity foxes are known for need to characterize this time and the time ahead for me. I’m so grateful for everyday divination and reminded again (as perhaps I am every winter solstice) to expect miracles.
In addition to Katherine May’s Wintering as an influence for this essay, I’ve started reading Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, which I can’t recommend enough. And my writing and reflections on the natural world are always influenced by adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants; and a few decades of learning and striving to live out ecofeminism (with many more influences).
This post is written by Beth Godbee, Ph.D. for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, check out “Beyond Self-Work: How Hiking Invites Self-Work,” “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist,” and “Welcoming Winter by Looking Within.”
Become a subscriber via Patreon to receive ongoing support for your efforts of striving to live for justice (social, racial, and environmental justice). And consider subscribing to the newsletter for additional resources and announcements. Thanks!