League of Wildness,
This morning when I woke up at 6:30 am the sky had only a hint of morning twilight on the horizon. Normally, I walk around the house and turn all the lights on. Waking up in the dark is one of my least favorite things and I tend to not feel awake or alive until the lights are on. Yet this morning, it was different. I stepped out the front door with bare feet into two inches of fresh snow, then closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I believe there is no fresher air on Earth than that which follows new snow. The sun wasn’t up yet, so there was only the still, silent darkness of early winter. I felt immense gratitude for the quiet and darkness that winter brings.
Next week is Thanksgiving in the US and I always try to spend time thinking deeply about what I am grateful for. There are always obvious things, like being grateful for my family, a comfortable home, enough money to pay the bills and buy food, and the enjoyment of a special holiday feast. I consider things that I take for granted so often, like the clean water that flows when I turn on the faucet, the ability to move my body even though it’s a bit stiff some mornings, and the first divine sip of a perfectly made cup of coffee.
But today, I am grateful for the change of seasons. Even though I am not always happy about waking up on dark mornings, the heaviness of the descent into winter is pleasurable, like the comfort of a heavy blanket. The solstices are my favorite days of the year, and I am looking forward to the winter solstice on December 21. I celebrate the darkest day of the year by getting in the woods and engaging my wild side. I stop and smell the crisp, fresh air and listen to the few birds that remain at this time of year. I appreciate that the only other sound I hear is my boots on the snow. I appreciate the particular way that the sun shines through the snow-covered branches of pine trees casting long shadows even in the early afternoon and making small, floating prisms in the snowflakes. There is nowhere I feel more at home than in the wilderness. It connects me to myself and to the larger world in a way that nothing else does. I am grateful for the quiet rest that winter brings to the forest and the introspection that the long, dark days bring to me. The next morning I will celebrate the return of longer days. We gain one second of sunlight between December 21 and 22!
It can be easy to feel like we are drowning when winter approaches. I used to think that it made everything look drab and dead with its monotone shades of white and grey. Even the evergreens are just another shade of darkness. However, we can choose to shift our perspective and observe with more depth. The fur on the animals is softer and darker, and the songs of the birds are less frantic. Spring is a time of renewal, summer a time of growth, and fall a time of harvest. All three of those seasons are marked by busyness and soaking in every minute of sunshine and warm weather – at least for those of us in the north that don’t see much of it. Winter is a time to reflect, look deeper, and see more than what is on the surface. Not just in our scenery but within ourselves. For me, that doesn’t mean I’m less active, it’s just a different balance that waxes and wanes throughout the year.
Winter has a lot to offer! Here are some of the things that have helped me to appreciate the gifts of winter:
Get outdoors every single day. I might not spend 8+ hours outside like I do in the summer, but it still calibrates me to the natural world. I love to explore the woods in the winter when my view isn’t obstructed by dense vegetation. I enjoy identifying animal tracks in the snow and following them through the woods.
Catch up on your reading list. The cold and darkness afford me some time to turn on the fireplace and hang out on the floor with a good book. It’s a great time to get some mobility work in as well. A couple of the books on my reading list that I’m looking forward to:
The Electricity of Every Living Thing is a memoir about a woman’s 600-mile hike on the South West Coast Path and her discoveries about herself.
How To Be Animal Looks like a great book about what it means to be human but still animal.
If I Live Until Morning An adventure/survival memoir of a woman who was injured while backcountry skiing the John Muir Trail.
Take up a new winter activity. My opinion of winter shifted to the positive when I found things that I enjoyed doing. Snowshoeing is an excellent way to explore new places in the winter. State parks often offer classes and rent gear. REI often hosts classes and trips as well. Try skiing (downhill or cross country), fat tire biking, ice fishing, sledding, ice skating, or hockey!
Go for a wintery hike. As the saying goes, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” It’s true! Don’t let some snow or wind keep you from getting your daily walk in. There are many products you can strap on your shoes or boots to add traction for the snow and ice. I personally like Kahtoola Microspikes but something less aggressive like Yak Trax may work fine for where you are. They add confidence to your winter steps and allow you to explore new places.
Try some new foods from other countries or cultures. Winter is an excellent time to explore curries, for example. It is a wonderfully warming comfort food that is easy to add some healthy food choices like lean proteins and vegetables. Curry might be the one food I could eat every single day. Here is a quick and basic shrimp curry recipe. Cooking is a great way to add warmth to the day while fueling your winter workouts.
Plan a winter adventure. Even visiting places you’ve been before can be drastically different in the winter. Frozen waterfalls can be a great winter hiking destination. Check out a winter festival in your area and explore ice mazes and giant snow sculptures. Come visit Minnesota and try dog sledding.
Make and burn a yule log. Fire is the ultimate expression of wildness! Historically, a yule log was a whole tree that was fed into the hearth throughout the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 - January 5, typically). Most people aren’t burning a whole tree in their houses these days so a small log is fine. Choose one that is an ideal size for you to burn in a fireplace or outdoor fire pit. You can then decorate it in a variety of ways. I like to use natural decorations, like dried berries, leaves I saved from fall, some small boughs from cedar or pine trees, and ribbons of birch bark. On the evening of your choosing such as solstice, Christmas Eve, or New Year's Eve, burn the log. It might be a good time to read an inspirational book, write in a journal, or just gather with loved ones and make s’mores. I prefer to do it outdoors and enjoy the contrast of the bright fire against the white snow and winter darkness. When the log is done burning, save some of the ashes and use them to start the fire for a new log next year.
Some extra resources
I love this site for information about how many daylight hours we have, when sunrise and sunset occur, the moon phase, and almost anything else you can think of relating to data about the seasons where you live
I really enjoyed the book “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times” by Katherine May. It has some great info in it about the importance of quiet and introspection and the need to include it in our life every bit as much as we include sunshine and activity.
This article is about getting kids and families into the outdoors no matter the weather. Even if you don’t have kids, there is a lot of good information and useful tips. The author of the article also wrote a book if you want to read more.
Here at wild gym, Dan and I are so very grateful to all of you who are on the wild journey with us. We appreciate every single person who has supported us in any way in our mission to encourage people to enhance their wildness and spend more time soaking in the benefits of the great outdoors. If you are in the US, we wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving full of all the things you are grateful for. We hope that everyone can find value in the practice of gratitude this week and always.