Join Jon Cleland Host as he rediscovers a sense of wonder at the winter season.
Very often, I hear people complain about the weather where they live – including weather which is normal for the season. This has seemed odd to me for a long time. After all, in today’s modern world, we often have a lot of choices about where we live. If one really has an issue with the climate in one place, then why live there and complain? I personally like a climate that includes winters. Without winters, the years blur together into a constant string of days, and it becomes easy to lose track of the passage of one’s life. Without winters, the Wheel of the Year takes a little more effort to feel as it goes by.
So it was fun to watch the wind blow snowy gusts across the frozen fields the other day. With no trees nearby, it was easy to imagine that I was looking out over the frozen tundra of the Arctic. In fact, the weather was the same as the temperatures often seen in the Arctic. It was as if I had been transported there, if only for a little while! Our Earth gives us a huge variety of environments, from a lush, hot forest to the barren and cold tundra, each with its own charm and beauty. Yet, travel is often not cheap or convenient, especially for those of us with a family, home and regular job. Wouldn’t it be a special blessing if the Earth could kindly bring different environments to us, instead of us traveling to them? I realized that the Earth does exactly that! For those of us in temperate regions, we see conditions approaching those of the Arctic during the winter, and conditions approaching tropical conditions in the summer. In some ways, this is even better than traveling to different climates – it’s completely effortless, happening without any work on our part, and we don’t even have to pack! Our entire homes are brought along with us, along with all our local family & friends!
It’s so easy to take this for granted – we’re used to it as a normal part of life. But consider what it would be like to describe the “seasons” to an otherwise similar person who lived on an otherwise similar planet with little or no axial tilt. 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 seem to 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? Don’t these ‘seasons’ as you call them, cause massive extinctions? Don’t they wipe out all the animals, since 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 …”
As a Naturalistic Pagan, just looking around me at our world often fills me with amazement and joy. Here I am, able to enjoy winter things like building a snow monster with my kids as if I lived in Alaska – knowing that in just a few months, the snow will melt away on its own, and I’ll be in a nearly tropical climate. And I get to experience this with every turn of our Wheel of the Year! The Earth’s tilt gives me this, just as it has given our Ancestors the Wheel of the Year itself! Wow!
We are so lucky to live at this time, the first moments in human history when we can understand our 14 billion year history, when we can understand not just our glorious seasons and the tilt of the Earth that gives them, but can see the connection between that tilt and our origins. Understanding deep time and our Great Story allows me to look back at that Hadean time of collisions and appreciate how those impacts (including, perhaps, the Theia impact) gave us the seasons we enjoy today. So our Wheel of the Year itself is a reminder of the Earth’s violent beginnings, something to remember at this time at the beginning of the year.
Many cultures have stories of treasures hidden in a person’s normal day to day world – whether it’s gold under the floorboards, a priceless painting on the wall thought to be a cheap knockoff, or similar stories. Like discovered treasure, I’ve found that Naturalistic Paganism, with Deep Time eyes and knowledge of our Great Story, helps me see many of the incredible things we have to be grateful for, which surround us every day, available if only looked for.
Blessings of the snow,
In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, 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 (seewww.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.
This Wednesday: Mid-Month Meditation by Ken Apple, “American History”.