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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar contemplates the cycle of life and winter solstice

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Making it to solstice this year is a small light that is still burning. It is hope for renewal Gwenyfar is trying to focus on for 2019.

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“Do you think maybe it is time to put the New Year’s thing to rest, too?” Jock queried.

“Look, I just said I was trying to get myself ready to decorate for the holidays for the first time in almost a decade. I think that’s enough change for right now. Don’t push.”

Gwenyfar Rohler contemplates winter solstice, warmth and light, and old  northern Eurtopean traditions. Photo of 2004 winter solstice viewed  at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, by Tim Ereneta

WINTER SOLSTICE: Gwenyfar Rohler contemplates winter solstice, warmth and light, and old northern Eurtopean traditions. Photo of 2004 winter solstice viewed
at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, by Tim Ereneta

I responded with far more heat and frustration than Jock’s question warranted. I guess he saw an opening and pressed the advantage. (I can’t blame him; it has worked for strategists for thousands of years.)

Now, the holiday decoration thing might sound like an odd topic for us to talk about. Jock and I have never, in the almost two decades we have shared a home, decorated for the holidays or bought a tree.

My parents did.

For a long time after my mother passed away, I couldn’t even find the holiday decorations. I mean, I knew they must be in the house somewhere, but I had no idea where to even begin looking. During the course of renovations, I found at least two boxes of decor this year (and there are more somewhere).

Now that the B&B is open, we should probably put up some holiday decorations for the guests.

Going through all my mother’s carefully wrapped and packed boxes within boxes is an interesting exercise, especially this year. 2018 has been odd and difficult. I find myself at winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, contemplating light and warmth.

“My mother always used to hang a sun up somewhere on the winter solstice,” Jock comments almost every year as he contemplates a wooden sun image he hangs near the wood stove. “I guess she wanted to encourage the sun to return. Old northern European traditions…”

Born and raised in Holland, Jock’s mother would most certainly have been around old northern European traditions, as Jock so quaintly puts it. The two solstices (winter and summer) have been, for thousands of years, times to pause and recognize the relationship between planet Earth and the sun—because without the sun, life on the planet would not be possible.

From “A Meeting with the Universe” on NASA’s history page:

“Nothing is more important to us on Earth than the sun. Without the sun’s heat and light, the Earth would be a lifeless ball of ice-coated rock. The sun warms our seas, stirs our atmosphere, generates our weather patterns, and gives energy to the growing green plants that provide the food and oxygen for life on Earth.”

2018’s solstice is not so much about retreating into a dark cave to hibernate, as it is about conserving the light and warmth we have left in order to build something next year. Maybe Jock and I spend so much time talking about fires because we heat with wood. But the process of getting a wood fire going and keeping it going all night long—even if it is just embers and coals when you wake up—is important for getting a strong and full fire going for the next day. Building a fire becomes a philosophical pursuit at a certain point—and it begins in the heat of summer with putting away fire wood for when it’s needed in winter.

It is really hard in August to want to cut fire wood.

With all the home renovations these last few years, we got in the practice of saving every burnable piece of scrap wood off a house or unusable end cut from lumber. Large plastic garbage cans and totes full of scrap wood have figured heavily into our lives for a long time. Like Aesop’s Ant, we spend the warm months preparing for the cold ones. We live in Wilmington, so I cannot even fathom what it would take to prepare for and get through a winter in Canada or Scandinavia.

Once the stove, stove pipe, flue, and chimney have all been checked and cleaned and declared ready for the next heating season, the process of fire keeping begins. Junk mail, bits of paper and cardboard are used to get things started, then usually pieces of lath from old plaster walls and other “small wood,” as Jock likes to call kindling, are built around it like a teepee in the old Girl Scout method.

It cannot be rushed either. Squelch the fire early on, in addition to smoke, and, well, start from the beginning.

How true is that about most projects in life?

By adding pieces of flooring and pallets, we build the fire’s strength until it can light and handle a real oak log. Headed into the longest night of the year, the yule log, or the biggest one to fit in the fire (the one you hope will burn all night long), gets selected. Staring at it and its dancing flames, I can’t help but meditate on the process of getting here. Fifty years or more of tree growth to produce this log? What was necessary to make that happen: photosynthesis; soaking up water through the roots (keeping the area from flooding during heavy rains); birds and squirrels living and playing in the branches of the tree; night flights of owls; children climbing; leaves turned toward the sun; roots spreading and stretching. So much transpires until, finally, the limbs fall one by one, and eventually the tree itself comes down in a storm or worse … is felled by human hands.

All that life, all the energy stored up in the logs—which are split and come to rest on our front porch, before exploding in a fire dance that warms our home—provide life-sustaining energy. After the fire has cooled and smoldered to a rest, the ash is shoveled from the stove and we spread it in the yard around the other trees and in the garden where it yet again gives sustenance through fertilizer to the next generation of plant life. It’s the same plant life that sustains us, with oxygen and food and eventually heat.

It is a cycle we benefit from enormously. It is at the core of the cycle of life.
2018 has been a year of many unexpected situations and struggles, of which can only be prepared for so much. On the big scale: hurricanes Florence and Michael; on smaller and more personal levels, a series of unforeseeable business expenses.

Making it to solstice this year is a small light that is still burning. It is hope for renewal I am trying to focus on for 2019. We might be glowing embers right now, but let us hope and work toward the strength we know we can achieve. There is so much work for us to do: addressing our drinking water, strengthening tourism after the storms, and getting everyone who is still struggling back to normalcy.

The solstice is a long, dark night, but together, we can make glow.

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