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home : opinions : opinions May 27, 2016

1/7/2014 10:38:00 AM
Guest column: Winter and a sense of place
Williams-Grand Canyon News

Naturalists are continually searching for the interrelationships between the living and the non-living world. Like spiders and warblers, Navajo rug makers and tapestry weavers, naturalists spin and twist individual, seemingly unrelated strands of material into a unified picture. Weaving together sights, sounds, smells, and movements, they attempt to give meaning to our world and our lives, to make sense of our place.

I was recently thinking about the connection between the approaching season - Winter Solstice, shorter daylight hours, the moods and colors of winter days - and this idea of a sense of place. What is the thread that weaves winter and place together? The answer appeared as a chattering Kingfisher flew past along the creek.

Long ago, there was a fabled bird, a halcyon, which was believed to have the power to calm the wind and waves while nesting on the open sea. Their breeding and nesting period lasted 14 days in December; seven days before and seven days following the Winter Solstice. This magical, mythical bird resembled our modern day Kingfisher.

As my "Halcyon" flew by, I thought about this period of peace and tranquility. Winter seems misunderstood and often unappreciated. It is looked upon as a time of bleakness, of cold, dark days. Seen through a naturalist's eyes, however, it becomes a period of subtle beauty and permeating stillness. It is a season of discovery, for quietly perceiving a sense of place. Barren trees allow us to discern the lay of the land. We are able to see, for the first time since summer, how and where water travels. Our watersheds become defined, the valleys and ridges begin to "make sense." As winter holds its breath, a rhythm of the earth unfolds. Woven into this rhythm are the sounds of our resident birds - nuthatch, flicker, junco, jay. Their incessant chattering is only quieted by falling snow and wild winter winds, which carry their own unique music and mood.

Winter is a season of duality. The harshness of a frigid morning is softened by the brilliance and delicacy of hoar frost crystals on dried stalks of buckwheat and gramma grass. Somber tones of gray, tan and black stand in stark contrast to the riotous reds of red osier dogwood and rosehips. A clean, passive covering of snow is broken by the maze of animal tracks - scurrying feet, beating wings, a patch of blood as testament to ongoing life.

Winter is a season of paradox. Although we perceive it to be a time of darkness, it is actually a time of increasing light. During this period of 89 days and 1 hour, from the Solstice to the Vernal Equinox in March, sixteen minutes of daylight are added each week.

So what does this increasing amount of light in winter have to do with a sense of place? We can literally use the extra minutes of daylight to go out into our communities and places we inhabit, to really get to know them, to discover and experience them for perhaps the first time. And we can use this light as a metaphor. "Light" comes from the Latin word "lumen" - a light, an eye, an opening. It means: a spiritual or intellectual awareness or enlightenment; to comprehend or perceive the meaning of something.

By using the light of winter, we can begin to develop our sense of place. Sensing a place means to know it intimately in our minds, our hearts, our souls. We allow a place to penetrate our tissues and bones, and learn the rhythms and dance of its seasons. Place awareness takes practice; we need to be curious, ask questions, investigate.

And place awareness requires patience, a certain stillness and tranquility within. During the halcyon days around the Winter Solstice, go look for the Kingfishers. Perhaps they will be calming the waters of Williams, as well as ourselves.

Deb Noel

Public Lands Interpretive Association

Williams and Kaibab National Forest Visitor Center

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