Winter -- the Way Our Earth Lives


In the ancient system of Chinese traditional medicine, the year is divided into five seasons: spring, ruled by the element of wood; summer, ruled by fire; early autumn, ruled by earth; late autumn, ruled by metal, and finally winter, which is ruled by water.

Each season has its place on the wheel of the year, its associated organ systems, activities, tastes and emotions, and each is intimately linked to the other four. In this system a meal must contain all five flavors -- spicy, bitter, sweet, sour and salty -- in order to be fully satisfying. And life, in the individual human and in the world as a whole, cannot exist in good health without the presence and interplay of all five seasons.

Some have said that in our culture we want it to be always spring or summer. These seasons contain the energies with which we are most comfortable. We like spring's possibilities: the excitement of new growth and the seedling pushing through the topsoil. Even more, we enjoy summer, when we can experience the heat of fire, the part of the cycle that concerns doing, building and accomplishing. We like long, active days and short nights so we don't waste our time sleeping. ''Doing'' is what we are good at, what we are cherished for, whether it is called Yankee ingenuity or individual initiative or entrepreneurship.

But the cycles of nature are inexorable. A plant that is permanently in a growth cycle is a very short-lived plant. Sooner or later, nature will erase its existence. Similarly a person or a culture that refused to experience the slowing down of winter is not a good prospect for long-term survival.

The practitioners of traditional medicine tell us that you can't have a healthy summer if you reject the lessons of winter, and they point to the natural world as their proof. The trees, which last July were covered in leafy abundance, go dormant in the winter. The green leaves of plants are, after all, the oxygen machines of the planet, the photosynthesis factories that allow all other life to exist. Yet every winter they go to sleep and then mysteriously awaken in the spring to dazzle us with their blossoms.

As Western post-industrial humans, we have rejected the natural cycles. We don't like slowing down. We don't like the cold and dark or the passive nature of the element of water. We don't esteem sleep or the dreams that come to us during the nights. Winter is our time for charging ahead with our projects. No allowance is made for the change of seasons. It's business as usual, and there's an unspoken attitude that says if you let the weather dictate your plans, you're a wimp.

This winter, Mother Nature said, ''Let me be perfectly clear. Slow down. Stay home. Experience boredom and solitude. Feed yourself on your inner dreams instead of the sunshine of the outer world. A hard winter is not a problem or a punishment. It's simply the way things are, the way our earth lives.''

As I write this, my children are huddled around the radio, listening for what has become the inevitable announcement that, once again, schools will be closed. Where before such an announcement would have elicited cheers, now it produces groans. Even they have had enough down time. I will have to reschedule an important appointment and call around to see if my committee meeting has been canceled. For what seems like the hundredth time this winter, my husband and I will dig out our cars.

Yet I remind myself that as lessons from nature go, this one is mild compared to that delivered to my friends and in-laws in earthquake-rocked Los Angeles. The common point seems to be that we are creatures living as part of a vast and complex system, one that is sometimes dangerous and violent, but overall tremendously creative. Contrary to what we have been taught, we do not live above or outside the system, but as an integral component of it.

I look outside my window at the 100-year-old oak trees. To my limited human-scale vision, they might as well be dead, encased in a prison of ice. But I know they are only sleeping, waiting, dreaming, so that they will be ready for an especially welcome and glorious spring.

Shelley Cole Morhaim is a free lance.

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