Late winter in Northern California is a time of tension between stasis and flux. It is not uncommon, especially in this age of climate abnormality, for mid-January to host a spring tease. The nights can be mild, the days almost warm, and you find yourself peeling layers after taking your lunch in the grass, daring your winter skin to the light. Meanwhile, a California kingsnake feels the warming soil inside their earthen home, the burrow of a former gopher. Their brumation ending, they smell the balmy air with their tongue and are drawn upwards, uncoiling and winding like a seed sprout twisting towards the world above. The sun on a nearby road beckons their cold bones with its heat, and they bask gloriously, oblivious to the danger of passing cars. At night, the grey foxes can be heard yelping to each other, and during a full moon eclipse, one braves the ranch dogs to sit by the old barn, calling out for companionship. In the sheep pasture, the ravens that live in the old monterey pine are playing. Hopping and leaping sideways, often pausing to see how high they can go, they cut a trail through the grass, until they come to the fence. Rather than vault it head on, they leap once more, flying sideways over the rail, and then back to the otherside, where they repeat the game.
Conversation with clients turns to an indescribable feeling of restlessness, of not wanting winter and hibernation to end, yet having an unmistakable sense of the inner fire having been kindled. Just a spark, perhaps not even a flame, but a stirring of impulse that draws one across wet pastures, following the bombination of honey bees, and discovering the pussy willows have unfurled their pollen. It feels unbelievable, perhaps even too soon, but you find it delicious and your heart remembers the joy of springtime, here in the last dregs of winter. So too do you remember the scent of air too dry, of smoke filled skies and tragedy, and you check the horizon for clouds, thinking perhaps you should show the spirit of winter that you aren’t too daring, that you know it’s not really time yet, the rain storm could still catch you off guard… and that would be ok.
There are many ancient traditions and celebrations that occurred across the world during this time of year, many of which are still practiced today. As the lengthening light becomes unambiguous, it is a time of observance…both as honoring for the vital force pushing up through the greening hills, and of beholding that which is stirring within our own inner landscape. It may not be all grey foxes and buzzing bees. I’ve been hearing from many people, both clients and friends, how challenging this time of year can be. The holidays are over and in some parts of the world winter is just dragging on. Especially in the western world, with its emphasis on productivity equaling worth, the desire to hibernate can be at odds with those grand resolutions of the new year. Having burst forth from the starting gate with our aspirations, we may find ourselves now at a slow, anxiety-producing mosey. For others it seems to be the intramural stirring itself that feels troublesome. With old experiences on the compost pile moving into their final stage of breakdown, we may feel unexpected grief, uneasiness, or the return of issues we thought were resolved. Know that this is right in the pace of things, the old giving way to make room for the new with the rekindling of the light of inspiration.
Our ancestors, whether gathering or agricultural, had much more literal ties to the grounded minutiae of seasonal changes. Spring may still be far off, but the return of the light was recognized with preparation for the growing season. Purification was important, as were offerings in hopes for abundance to come.. In my own ancestral traditions of the British Isles, a ceremonial furrow in the earth would be made, to summon fecundity. Celebrated around February 1st, this time was known as Imbolc (or Imbolg). The etymology is thought to mean either “milk” or “in the belly”, referring to the pregnancy of ewes, milk in the udder and also “cleansing”. Known too as “Bridghe’s Day”, Brigid, a gaelic deity of fire and fertility (later christianized as St. Brigid), was invited into hearth and home - literally. A bed was made for her, sometimes of straw and dried flowers, often with a lamp at the side and benefactions of bread, milk, honey and other sweets. A woven symbol made from rushes was hung on the door of the house as a symbol of supplication and the door left ajar all night. If her footprints were found around the hearth, it was sure to be a good year. That night there were sometimes bonfires and processions of light, firebrands carried through the field, candles lit throughout the home. Later, when the Christian Church changed the day to Candlemas, and The Presentation of the Christ Child, still the returning light was honored in candlelit processions and twinkling flames throughout the church.
In Ireland, Scotland and Wales, this time of year was also associated with The Cailleach, the spirit of winter. An ancient land deity, she determined (like our modern day groundhog) how much longer winter would last on February 1st. If she was intent for winter to go on, she would need more firewood. Casting the clouds aside, she would call for a warm day while she gathered kindling. But if she was ready to retire early, returning to the underworld, the day would be cloudy, and those who took auspices from the weather would celebrate the arriving spring.
As a young woman, I lived in the damp and dark coastal climate of The Redwood Curtain. I suffered from “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (otherwise known as S.A.D) - depression that occurs or worsens in winter months due to lack of sunlight. While S.A.D. absolutely has a physiological component, and can be greatly improved with the right light therapy box, nutrition and psychotherapy, I think it also happens in part due to our culture’s instance on Living Out of Sync. Slowing down, proper time for allowing our feelings/grief, letting our productivity lay fallow…these things are counter to Capitalism. So what’s a rewilding folk to do? Here are some suggestions for honoring this time of year, both as an individual and also for those of you who lead groups, do ecotherapy, or want to incorporate seasonal rhythm into your clinical practice.
Rather than an idea that we, our bodies, or our lives are somehow toxic, purification can look more like airing out. Like opening a window and letting in the breeze, purification is an opportunity to freshen up. This can look like weeding a garden plot, spring cleaning, making yourself a nourishing broth or taking a bath with sea salt (or seaweed!). For those of you in proximity to hot springs, what a delicious time to immerse yourself in steamy water while winter hangs out around you.
Smoke purification was often done this time of year, both in home and stable. “Smudging” with white sage is finally getting the attention it deserves as a problematic, culturally appropriative practice that also impacts wild stands of Salvia apiana. Using smoke from plants with volatile oils has a long history in European traditions, where it was usually called fumigation. While personal use of Salvia apiana is up to the ethics of the individual, my opinion is that it perpetuates violence against California Indigenous Nations to use it in a group or ecotherapy endeavor, particularly in those that are for profit. One of the fun things about reclaiming one’s own ancestry, is the options it can open up for you to follow in the ceremonial steps of those who came before you. Here are some possibilities if you are of European descent. As smoke cleansing was a common practice all over the world, I encourage you to investigate what practices are particular to your own ancestral land base.
Angelica archangelica or Angelica hendersonii - used in medeival Europe to celebrate the power of fire and drive away evil spirits.
Resins such as frankincense, myrrh and dragon’s blood were traded on the Incense Route and have deep spiritual and historical use in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, and India. Other types of resin, such as pinion, are nice too.
Cedar, juniper, pine and other evergreens contain oils such as thujone which have been proven in research studies to eliminate airborne bacteria and viruses when burned. Other tender plants like common garden sage, rosemary and mugwort also literally “clean” the air.
Strewing herbs were used during the Renaissance to keep indoor spaces fresh, spread on frequently used hallways, floors and under tables. These same herbs were often tossed onto the fire for their pleasant scent. Bay, chamomile, violets, rose petals, basil, pennyroyal (and other mints) and hops are some examples.
Preferably the herbs you use are ones that you have relationship with. Remember, smoke cleansing is not about using a plant like a bottle of frebreeze, but about being in conversation with green allies in a reciprocal way.
Deep Listening to the Land
Seasonal shifts are a perfect time to go for a long, slow, QUIET walk…be it in a regional park or even down your city’s streets. Let your time be spent noticing, in a friendly, non-judgemental way, what you are experiencing, both internally and externally. Engage your senses can help to quiet inner chatter. What intrigues you as you walk? Get to know it with touch, smell, hearing and even taste. You don’t need to spend time figuring things out or identifying what you discover. Simply notice. Notice details, patterns and shifts. One ancient tradition around Imbolc involved watching and waiting by a snake’s hole to see if it would emerge (again, similar to Groundhog’s Day). This activity would require feeling settled within the self, the type of stillness that can come from dropping our internal narrative about who we are, where we are going and what we want. Engaging our senses with mindful attention in nature can seem trite to our “sophisticated” and disillusioned minds, but it’s truly the most powerful practice I know.
We all engage in ritual, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Each morning and evening you probably go through a series of steps that prepare you for bed or the day ahead. Ritual is natural and necessary for pattern seeking human creatures. But it need not be peppered with “new agey stuff” that might turn you, or your clients, off. Ritual can absolutely be secular. Indeed, many of our ancient ceremonies had less to do with worship, and more to do with transitioning from one phase to the next, be it a life phase or a seasonal one.
Another way to engage in ritual is through story. Folklore and fairytales are a great way to invoke the imaginal, and can give the day a magical, multi-layered and historic quality. Those of you who follow me on Instagram, know that I recently I took the mythology of The Cailleach and reimagined her here in Sonoma County. Folklore is a fun way to engage with ancestry, yet the stories often speak of another landscape, which doesn’t quite serve to connect us with our own. It can be delightful to notice what happens when we invite ancient archetypes into our immediate surroundings. (Two good examples are the novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and The Grey Fox Epistles by Sylvia V. Lindsteadt).
A sweet ritual I enjoy doing with my family involves inviting the energy of emerging vitality and light (in the form of Brigid) into our home. We will hang our three-legged Brigid’s cross on the door and prepare her a bed with a small altar nearby. We will leave out offerings, and also the packets of seeds that newly arrived this week, in the hope that they will be blessed. Similarly, you can invite clients to plant seeds (that like a bit of cold before spring) in a garden plot, and tuck into the soil a little slip of paper upon which is written hopes, dreams, wishes or intentions for the coming season. Ritual can be as simple as emptying your jars of dried herbs that have gotten stale, making a small fire, and sprinkling them over. You can just go outside at night and listen for the sounds of non-human others. Truly, that’s my favorite.
Reciprocity is appropriate at any time, but seasonal celebrations are a nice way to schedule it in. Have you heard about paying your rent? Not on that price-inflated Bay Area flat, but for the unceded Indigenous land we stand on? Revolutionary and cheeky, this idea is being promoted by Native American advocacy groups such as the Sogorea Te Land Trust. Called the Shuumi Land Tax, and located in the East Bay, all funds raised go towards the Ohlone Nation. Anyone who is non-native can pay their share of rent (which is actually calculable). From their website:
No amount of money will undo the damage that’s been done, will bring back the lost lives or erase the suffering of the people. But this is a step in a long-term process of healing, a small way you can, right now, participate in a movement to support the self determination and sovereignty of the local Native American community.
One of the greatest untold stories in California is that of the genocide of the Indigenous People. From 1769 to 1870, through calculated extermination by federal, state and local forces, the population of these nations went from 300,000 to 30,000. It’s a wound that may never heal, but particularly as ecotherapists, we have a responsibility to recognize, honor and make amends. One way of participating in restorative justice is to get to know the names, and perhaps even natural history (past and current) of the peoples who were here before us. As group leaders or ecotherapists, it is imperative that this recognition be given before engaging in activities on the land.
You can also explore ways of giving back to the land itself. This will depend on where you live, but as an example: One of the best ways to mitigate climate change is by engaging in environmental restoration. Wetlands in particular are important, and here in Sonoma County, that means supporting the recovery of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. They have workdays once a month where you can get your hands dirty, planting native plants and otherwise stewarding the health of this important ecosystem.
Find Your Own Rhythm
Didn’t I start this whole thing off by admonishing The System for being a no-fun, slave-driving boo boo head? If you feel deflated by a sense of Imbolc FOMO and like all these suggestions are just too much pressure, you also have permission to do nothing. Not feeling that sparky ignition, and like you’d rather just crawl in bed with cheesy puffs and binge horrifying true-crime stories (or is that just me?)? Find your own rhythm and trust that your emergence from the winter months will happen in good time. If Imbolc is about nothing else, it is about that time of stasis and flux. To be still, or to arise, both are good, and true. Here’s the Cailleach, to take you out under skies cloudy, or blue.
Cailleach’s head rises from her hunched countenance, nose sharply turning towards the cave entrance where a breeze pushes in against the inky dark, bringing in the scent of warming earth. She knows that soon, at Imbolc, she will be unable to resist the burgeoning call, and she will go to the meadow and throw off her shawl. If the sun warms her marrow, she will know her reign is over, and will retreat to the underworld, having no interest in the delirium of spring. Yet if the icy chill remains, she will grunt, satisfied, and clack her bones of winter a few weeks more. For now, she turns back to the osseous matter of the skunk and its bones, and breathes ancient chants into the hollow sinuses, willing the sinew and muscle, the thick fur and long claws to return. For life to animate, for the world to be reborn.