For many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we are about to enter a wonderful season! Winter is an incredible gift which we all too easily take for granted, or worse, complain about.
Like the constantly changing sky, the constantly changing seasons provide us with a continuous wonder to behold, with new beauty every day, if we only take a moment to notice and appreciate it. We could live our lives with our heads down, punching the clock day after day, or open ourselves to the joy which is here for us. Years ago, I suddenly realized how bizarre our seasons actually are. Can you imagine what it would be like to talk with someone who lived on an otherwise Earthlike planet with no axial tilt, who had no idea that changing seasons were possible?
It might go something like:
“you’ve got to be kidding me. You’re saying you sometimes shift Northwards on the planet’s surface?!?”
“Not exactly. I mean, we don’t actually move. But the weather becomes like that of the North.”
“….and you don’t have to move? It just happens? Like, without warning?”
“Oh, we know when it’ll happen – it happens with one cycle about every 365 days.”
“So one day it suddenly gets cold, then warms back up the next day?”
“No, no – it’s gradual. It kinda blends into the next season, so we get at least weeks of each climate. That’s on top of the regular variation like you have.”
“So everyone gets to sample the different climates?”
“most people – it doesn’t change as much near the equator. Each climate (or “season”) lasts just long enough to fully experience it – much longer and it might get tiring or boring.”
“that would be amazing! How do you still do your regular work – isn’t everyone fascinated by it, going outside everyday to see the change?”
“everyone expects it, as a fact of life. Sadly, some even take it for granted! But it is pretty cool. In fact, it’s become a major part of many of our different cultures, and is often part our religions, holidays, cooking choices, clothing fashions, and more!”
“But what about the animals? These ‘seasons’ as you call them, would cause massive extinctions! An animal from one climate obviously can’t live in a different climate.”
“Some animals have evolved to be able to survive in multiple climates, growing more fur every year just before winter. Others have evolved to migrate South to avoid the winter.”
“Wow, I knew evolution often gives rise to amazing adaptations, but automatic fur growth and mass migrations of entire species on schedule? Can you give me a reliable reference source for all this, in a peer-reviewed journal? Forgive me for being skeptical.”
“Ok, I’ll find one – but wait until you learn about hibernation! Some animals, such as turtles and frogs, hibernate through the winter. Their bodies nearly shut down, and cool to just above freezing (or lower, for those with anti-freeze blood), with their heart rate and breathing becoming so slow that they look dead. Then, they revive every spring. Oh, and some trees lose all their leaves, growing them all back a few months later. The leaves change color before falling off – from green to orange, red, and yellow.”
“Oh, rrrrrriiiight. You almost had me going for a minute there with the fur, but the zombie frogs and techni-color leaves were just too silly! OK, funny guy – no, really, what about the animals? How do they really survive? I mean, evolution is powerful, so what did it actually come up with?”
“I’m not making this up! Really! Look, I’ll get you some pictures, and other sources.”
“sssure, you will….”
Winter is a wonderful gift which many of us don’t even need to travel to experience. Instead, it brings it’s joys to us, once a year, for just a few weeks or months! We only have barely enough time to get used to it, and nearly tropical temperatures begin to return. Many Americans complain about it, yet this article discussed how and why it is such a blessing to many even farther North (in Norway). For one thing, Winter is anticipated long before it arrives. The skiiing, sunset colors, and more are remembered and looked forward to. Perhaps most importantly, Winter is enjoyed. This time is especially savored in outdoor activities, and when indoors, a heightened appreciation of warm rooms and warm drinks. Just as I heard at my kids nature preschool, they remember that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
Many people, both in the US and in Norway, suffer from various degrees of depression, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD) linked to the loss of sunlight. It’s of course complicated to compare two very different cultures and sets of circumstances, but research into the effect of darkness in one town in Norway shows quite low rates of depression, possibly related to the different approach taken to Winter described above. At the same time, we need to be careful to avoid suggesting that people can simply “think their way” out of mental illness. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and making it sound like that always works can minimize or dismiss the real mental afflictions that people are dealing with.
For many of us, including myself, the seasons help reinforce my connection to the land I live on – land that some of my Ancestors have lived on for thousands of years, and which is quite alien to some others of my Ancestors. Whatever form this season takes in your local area, may it help strengthen your connection to the land, energize your life, and reinvigorate your spirituality. Blessed be.
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.