As we enter the thick middle of winter, revisiting our relationship with this season can bring us back into a new kind of relationship with nature, ourselves, and community.
When I was a teenager, growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, my family once took a summer vacation to the Alps. We were walking in the mountains in our cotton sweaters when we came across a white patch on the rocky dirt. I remember my brother, sister, and me squeezing into it, delighted to be able to take a picture in the snow!
That pretty much sums up my experience of winter. My mother had been scarred by living through bitter blizzards in the Midwest United States. She would tell what seemed to me as a child like unfathomable stories about how her damp hair would freeze if she went outside or how she trekked across her college campus to swim practice in below-freezing temperatures. My father, having grown up in Ethiopia and Somalia, was happy to stay in South America’s tropical setting as well.
I was in my 20s the first time I saw fairy-tale flakes falling from the sky. It was in the Sierras on a weekend trip from San Francisco, where I have lived most of my adult life. This could explain why I was so surprised when, in recent years, participants of my nature practice courses started to report that I was helping them experience winter in a whole new way. They were going from seeing winter as a cold-damp-icy-darkness-of-gloom-to-be-endured to experiencing it as a time in which they could find more delight and appreciation and even restore a sense of rooted thriving.
I first heard of this happy side effect of my work when I was leading a mini nature retreat for a group of humanitarian workers from the United Nations. We were at the University of Virginia in December of 2018 and got an unexpected snowfall. We brought out rocking chairs so we wouldn’t have to sit on the now-wet lawn as I had initially planned. I readjusted the schedule so we could pop indoors every 45 minutes or so to refill our teacups, which also acted as hand warmers. But otherwise, I guided the session as I normally would, attuning to what nature had in store for us that day. There was a bit of teaching, some meditation, journaling, poetry, and conversation. At the end of our time together, many of the participants, who lived in New York, told me they loved nature but had hated winter their entire lives. They said this was the first time they were able to see how they might experience it differently.
Their words struck me deeply. What did it even mean to hate winter your entire life? To live in an unhappy state for a quarter of every year? For a full quarter of your life? What does that do to your heart? To your mind? To your health? To your loved ones? To your colleagues? Does hating winter mean enduring a divorce from nature every single year? I had a hard time imagining it.
That’s why, since the rocking chairs in the snow, I’ve been helping people from around the world—even from places like Canada, Alaska, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—look forward to winter. Through a process of “opening to the medicine of winter,” people in my community have now come to experience nature practice as their winter sustenance. What I realized is that rather than disassociating from the Earth when she withdraws things we like—things like light, warmth, fruits, flowers, color, etc.—the key is found in staying in vibrant, expanding, deepening relationship with the Earth. This means through good times and rough ones, just like in your other healthy relationships.
Staying engaged with the flow of nature during winter may require extra discipline and determination
This is not to say that a casual connection with nature on weekends, or on vacations, or when our “real work” is done is sufficient. Our relationship with nature is a vital one. It has a direct impact on our well-being during any season, but if we have particular difficulty with winter, then this relationship is most especially vital during this season. If anything, rather than letting our relationship with nature extinguish itself during the cold, wet, dark days, we need to take special care to keep it kindled. When we tend to nature and build rapport with her in this way, we ensure that the lifeline of wonder, awe, and nourishment stays vibrant.
At first, staying engaged with the flow of nature during winter may require extra discipline and determination to get through the discomfort. We may resist going out for a walk in the rain or taking our morning tea on the porch in the cold. But taking the extra step of putting on rain pants or keeping a blanket by the door may be just what we need to get a taste for the abundance available when we offer our presence to nature. Once that presence goes beyond being physical to include an open heart, then we start to crave that satisfying connection with nature, just like we crave quality time with our friends.
Soon enough, as that goodness fills us up, it starts to seep into our thoughts and spill out through our words and actions. It starts to affect how we relate to others and to the Earth. It starts to impact the decisions we make and what they will mean for future generations.
Sometimes, this sort of healthy inter-seasonal relationship with nature is represented by a circle. We are in the circle along with the other beings of this Earth—with other human beings, animal beings, plant beings, fungi beings, bacteria beings, mineral beings, river beings, mountain beings. All of us are in the circle. This is how we have lived for hundreds of thousands of years. Even as modern society has largely abandoned the circle, Indigenous wisdom keepers from around the world have stayed committed to the model and have been strongly urging every one of us back in.
A foundational characteristic of the relationship established in the circle is that everyone is a being. This January, Spain came to the conclusion that dogs are sentient beings, allowing for special consideration to be offered to them. But when we live in the circle—as we have done for most of our existence as human beings—all beings around us are considered to be sentient, worthy of our respect. Not just people and our favorite domesticated pets. The Earth as a whole is acknowledged for her sentience, for her extraordinary wisdom, and for her poetic capacity to offer us a steady stream of breathtaking beauty. With this perspective, we are more likely to transform our resistance to the harshness of winter into curiosity for experiencing how it will play out and enthusiasm for getting to be a part of it.
As deeper appreciation and love develops for the preciousness of it all, we come to describe it, with reverence, as sacred. This is the quality of the circle and the reality of what is available to us during wintertime—and at all times—as long as we’re willing to continually deepen our relationship with nature.
The problem is that we’re distracted. These days, for the most part, the sort of relationship we often find ourselves in can be represented as a triangle. This is a shape that has been reinforced and solidified only in the past few hundred years of our existence as humans. In this way of relating to nature, there is scarce space for humans at the very top, generating artificial competition as well as a hierarchy of increasing objectification from there on down. If the circle facilitates flow and abundance of life, the triangle, by its very structure, pinches off that flow, creating scarcity through our disassociation from—and our exploitation and domination of—nature. We increasingly isolate and push ourselves into a corner.
The term I find useful to describe this experience is “biological homelessness,” where we lose the depth of relationship we long to have with the Earth. This condition has been normalized in a modern world that is predominantly disassociated from the natural world—constantly pulling us indoors (to the tune of 95% of our lives), onto our screens, and away from the truth of who we are. In a world that increasingly makes unrealistic demands of us, biological homelessness is a state of destitution that sneaks up on us. It feels like thirst, hunger, or saudade, meaning an inconsolable longing, as my Brazilian friends would put it.
When we’re in this state of estrangement, then the harshness of winter makes everything worse, just like the darkness of nighttime prevents us from seeing things as they really are, making our problems bigger. As we starve ourselves of the soul-satisfying nourishment that a relationship with nature offers, then the deprivation that comes with winter hits us stronger. Without our curiosity and enthusiasm for the magical nature of the unfolding, the unpleasant aspects overtake our experience. In this state, everything becomes darker, colder, wetter, gloomier.
That’s why restoring our relationship with nature—physically, yes, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—is key to transforming our experience with winter. Once we’re able to do this, we can thrive in any season. We stay open to the possibilities of responding consciously and creatively to changing conditions. We look for new ways to stay dry and warm. We may set up a firepit in the backyard to extend our time outdoors like several of my students have done. We may go out in a survival suit like my student on the island of Shetland in the North Sea does. We may put a clear tent on our Christmas wish list like my student in London did so she could sit outside and be in nature even during the wet season. As we stay committed to remaining engaged with nature in these ways, we give ourselves a chance to come into deeper understanding and a more embodied experience of her wisdom and her beauty. As a result, we are able to feel more energized, revitalized, calm, flexible, resilient, receptive, and inspired.
The hardship of winter heightens our awareness of what we take for granted. The lack of color increases our ability to take in even the slightest hues more intensely, giving us a fresh opportunity to appreciate the miraculous flow of life in new ways. In this state of renewed gratitude and wonder, we are also better positioned to offer more skillful healing to the challenges of our time.
And if we get distracted, we can always count on poets to support us on this journey back to the circle, to remind us of the possibility of awe, to point it out when we have become numb to it, and to help us keep this vital relationship alive and invigorated. One of my favorite stanzas for the occasion is from Joyce Rupp, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and knows a thing or two about winter. Her poem is called “Winter’s Cloak,” and it starts like this:
This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
of long lasting embrace.
If you’d like to learn more about creating a better relationship with winter, the author of this piece, Natasha Deganello Giraudie, is offering YES! readers a free workshop called Opening to the Medicine of Winter. Click here to take advantage of this free online course!
This article was originally published on Yes! Magazine.
Image by standret on Freepik.
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