By Liza Field
To do nothing is sometimes a good remedy.
Here in our longest nights of the year, within the most slanted, abbreviated sunlight, I thought I’d pull a plug for some winter stillness and rest.
After all, nature does. Each December in the northern hemisphere, the day descending early into profound darkness, there’s a gravitational pull downward into quiet. Particularly in the woods or along riverbanks, you feel it.
The trees comply with this urge to subterranean stillness. Deep leaves blanket the ground. Sap waits in the roots. Insect life has gone into white cocoon or egg mode under rocks and logs. Some animals hibernate; others increase time in lairs, listening and practicing the ancient art of “enough.”
And the humans?
Well, nature’s darkest, quietest month is just when we Americans pick up the pace to get more, do more, be more places we aren’t — faster. The night sky and buildings are lit 24/7 with commerce, traffic, entertainment, buzz.
And this we call “the holidays.” The root of that word, paradoxically, denotes “well-being,” “health,” “wholeness.”
When various individuals feel run down by all this hectic wholeness, and sink into winter depression, we consider them dysfunctional, rather than our society.
A retiree wrote me recently of her past diagnosis of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). She’d been living in a metro suburb where she rushed to work in the winter dark and battled the traffic homeward in the dark. Never a winter moment to stop, be still and think.
At home, computer screens remained bright until late, everyone busy with homework, social media, news. Then there were those nighttime “shopping season” trips to the mall.
Now she’s parked her life among some trees in the Appalachians. “I no longer wear a watch and I take a walk every day in the woods,” she said. “And I have not had a single SAD episode.”
Her theory? “Maybe SAD isn’t caused by declining hours of daylight. Maybe my chosen social and career paths caused me to fight against the natural order of seasons.”
What is the “natural order of seasons?”
No medical resource lists any symptoms of Seasonal Affective Order. We’ve lost the sense that a season (or nature itself) has any inherent order, or that we should follow it.
Humans no longer get our living instructions firsthand from nature. Instead, we get our information third-hand and 3-millionth-hand from mass media, specialists and marketers.
This is why our ill-guided land-use (pavement, lawns, deforestation, 24/7 lights, chemical-overload) ignores and deadens the deeper, perennial order of nature.
We’re likewise untuned to any natural order in ourselves, being composed of and dependent upon the larger biosphere.
This disconnect would seem itself a disorder to sages of old who considered nature the handiest instruction book for reality, sanity and health.
“Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly,” Hippocrates figured, “Should . . . consider the seasons of the year, and what effects each of them produces.”
“Nature goes her own way, and all that to us seems an exception is really according to order,” Goethe said.
This carries us back around to winter stillness and darkness, which nature doesn’t consider pathologies to exterminate, but medicine with a purpose.
This medicine is what draws people to Robert Frost’s verses on “stopping by woods on a snowy evening,” “the darkest evening of the year.” Something in us craves such a moment.
Pausing en route home, in the winter dusk, you can feel this tonic in some wayside trees or along a copper creek, flanked by sycamores and ushering up cold vapors of rocks, leaves and roots.
Here, the fight-or-flight mode of consumerism relaxes. Here, you can listen, absorbing some ancient wisdom.
Had the members of any such ecosystem not learned, themselves, to pause from pursuit-mode and be content with what they had, they could not have survived — one winter or millions.
This one instruction alone could change our world — human psychology, health, economy and our besieged environment.
If we understood it, a strange happiness could bloom in winter. In pause-mode, we might better perceive how to order our time, resources and land-use, year-round, abandoning excess and attending actual needs. After all, “Everything in excess is opposed to nature,” said Hippocrates.
Restoring this order would require nothing we don’t already have — except a quiet moment to realize that.