The darkest point of the year is when we start preparing for the sun.
This is the simple truth, embedded in many earth-based forms of spirituality and religion (which most modern world religion retain, at least in their practices.) It is when the earth seems frozen that we start to think about planting seeds; it is when light and warmth are scarce that we celebrate the light and warmth in our homes, our communities, our families, our spirits.
There have been years, a decade or more, in my life when I have felt the coming of winter darkness as a threat. I have entered the season with great trepidation, anti-depressants in hand, always feeling that the autumn was just a time of watching the life be drained from flora and fauna, watching a death descend that might just get me this year as well.
Lou, Luke and I spent a few days in Montreal right after Christmas, where it was not quite as cold as I expected but it was definitely darker. Night fell earlier and morning came slower. Driving along the border on the way there and back, the landscape was barren and icy.
And…. it was beautiful. Beautiful in a way I felt deep in my bones, the same way I remember the untouched snow in our back yard being beautiful when I was a child, the same way I have wanted to be able to see the beauty of winter again for many years but has not been within my reach.
Here’s the reading I’m looking at today. This is one of the readings for Epiphany, which comes on January 6th, from the 60th chapter of Isaiah.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
On our last day in Montreal we decided to drive out of the city to visit an outdoor “ecomuseum,” actually a sort of zoo for arctic animals who could not be returned to the wild for one reason or another. I typically hate zoos, honestly – it’s hard for me to see wild animals in cages – but this place seemed uniquely loving and caring. The animals were outside in large, protected spaces, being fed real food, feeling real snow and ice and wind.
And they were stunning. We could have stood and watched the caribou for hours, the river otters, the owls. Oh, the owl, that magical and mystical creature. And the arctic foxes and river otters, playful and snuggly and yet so… other.
This place was mainly populated by young children and their families, which I recognized immediately: this was a Canadian version of the farm-zoos I used to take Luke to when he was that age, where we’d see cows and pigs and llamas and horses and peacocks. Little kids love animals. It’s like we are born with an innate love, respect and reverence for the creatures of the world. I will never forget the first time Luke saw a sheep. He was not quite two, and I was pushing him in a stroller around one of these places. When the sheep came up to the fence, Luke’s little friend got scared and started crying (respect! Big animals should scare us on some level at least.) When Luke saw the sheep, he started laughing. Hysterically laughing. He could not stop. It made me laugh too. I had never realized it, but yes, sheep are just inherently funny. This is how children help us all grow, by reminding us of these important truths that make life so much more joyful. What happens to people who emerge from childhood without that reverence and love for our fellow creatures on the earth? I found myself wondering this as we drove back to our hotel. It’s so clear to me that humans are born to love and care for the beings we share space with, yet people who rise to positions of power have often lost sight of that reverence – or perhaps have forgotten how to be reverent, forgotten that wildlife is not simply there for our consumption, not something that we can just enjoy and not make sacrifices to care for it.
We have “othered” the earth and the miraculous plant and animal life that exists with us, made ourselves separate from it in our minds, and now we make decisions like building leaky oil pipelines down fantastic wilderness, creating plastic junk that chokes the sea monsters, and dumping chemicals into the water and soil that poison us all.
If that’s not a “thick darkness” that covers the earth like Isaiah describes, I don’t know what is. A darkness that hides our connection to the miraculous diversity of life that surrounds us on this earth, our “island home” (h/t BCP). It’s a darkness that hides our own vulnerability from us and makes us believe that we can act without impunity or consequence on this planet. It’s a darkness that keeps us from seeing the simple miracle of an own moving its head back and forth, of the hilarity of river otters careening down slippery rocks, of the sheer presence of the caribou, those magnificent creatures.
It’s a darkness that keeps us from love. This is my prayer for the new year, for 2020 and beyond, and for this Epiphany season: that the “thick darkness” that keeps us trapped in an illusion of separateness clears away like smog being lifted from a cityscape; that we cease to bow to the gods of self, industrialization, independence and consumption; that we cease to live so faithlessly, so untrusting in the world and one another, so small-minded and unimaginative that the only way we seek to live is at the expense of other vulnerable, miraculous, and intrinsically valuable plant and animal life in the world.