These days, the sun barely rises 25 degrees above the horizon. Even as we approach the sun at the closest point in our orbit, the 23.5 degree axial tilt away from the sun in our hemisphere causes the sun’s rays to lose more energy by traveling through more of our atmosphere, which ensures that the northern hemisphere of our planet will be in the grasp of winter for the next few months. I understand the orbital mechanics of the sun and moon, but this evening, I choose to see the seasonal change through the eyes of a poet.
Our ancestors would have known intimately the cycles of the sun. Their survival depended upon it. They would have observed the sun setting low in the southwest sky and noticed the sliver of the young December moon. They would have known that in this moon, the world would freeze. Many moons back, they would have prepared for this season. Late in the last moons of the summer, they would have harvested the communal fields of crops, hunted for game, and gathered berries and nuts from the forest floor as a community. Livestock may have been slaughtered and processed for winter food. Some crops would have been kept for seeds for the next season, some would have been stored for the winter, and some would have been prepared in a communal feast that celebrated the earth, sky, and community.
If the ancestral community was nomadic, they would have bid farewell to kin, and departed for winter camps of small family units. Even if they were sedentary, family units would have likely spent more time together indoors, listening to winds howl and snows blow against their communal structures. It was a time of feasting, sleeping, and storytelling.
It took faith to survive the cold winters. When the sun abandoned the sky, the game left, and the plants died. It must have been terrifying, watching the food stores shrink as the winter wore on. Yet, they had faith in the earth and her cycles, and they relied on each other. They were prepared, and as long as the land provided food for the summer and the community worked together, they would live through the winter.
Long nights could challenge the morale of the community. Games, stories, and rituals helped them cope with such a challenging season. They would have told stories of humor and of survival. Each day, the sun would sink lower and lower into the southern sky (or reverse in the southern winter). Some people, north (or south) of the arctic circle would even watch the sun disappear completely below the horizon for weeks in the winter. How terrifying that must have been, and how important those stories must have been to the morale of the people!
They learned to rely on each other, and to trust that their needs would again be met once the snows thawed in spring. Their rituals of winter reminded them that they were never alone as long as they had their families and community. In our modern world, it’s all too easy to forget that we still need each other. Today, we have many rituals and holidays during the solstice season to remind us that we are connected to larger communities. Families and large communities all over the world celebrate a multitude of cultural and religious celebrations that reinforce beliefs and community ties.
Today, we live in a world where the food supply in some areas is no longer linked directly to the seasons. A global economy ensures that crops are grown year-round somewhere on the planet and distributed through complex supply chains. It’s a system that has the potential to eliminate starvation. Unfortunately, we live in a world of extreme disparity. While many people no longer experience the pangs of hunger and famine, 1 in 7 people on this planet, nearly a billion, are suffering from food insecurity and starvation. Every 3.5 seconds (9 million per year), another soul dies of starvation–a malady that should be extinct. When I let those numbers sink in, I am overwhelmed by how many have died in the time it took me to write this.
This is not a condition that exists solely outside of our country either. In the richest country to ever exist on this planet, over 40 million people are food insecure (almost 1 in 7) with over 12 million of them being children. That means that on your morning commute, 1 in 7 people that you see are extremely hungry and are unsure of where their next meal is coming from. Over a half million people are homeless in the US or roughly the equivalent of the population of Milwaukee, WI sleeps on the streets or in registered shelters every night. That number does not include the people who are between housing and living with others. In a world where we can communicate with anyone on the planet with a device that we carry in our pockets, or grow more food annually than we can all eat right now, it is a tragedy that anyone goes to bed cold and hungry, anywhere.
When we are rushing around this time of year, we may not notice a member of our community going without. Even if we don’t notice, we can reflect on the fact that great suffering is all around us. Our ancestors survived, even in hard times, by relying on each other. Communities took care of their members. Today, we have to view our communities less provincially. Our community is larger. Modern religions see the entire globe as one large community. Our way forward is only possible if we can all help each other, without reservation, and to learn to support our global community. Each of us has our own path to walk, and our only imperative is to act upon our own individual call to action. The future of our species and the spiritual and physical health of its individuals depends upon each of us to respond as our individual conscience dictates. There is plenty of work for us all.
In the next few weeks, I will reflect on the privilege that I have that has gives me the security of food, shelter, and water. I will also continue to try to follow my conscience to action, and seek new ways to better serve my community. In this season of hope and joy, Susan and I will be enjoying our time with friends and family by taking time to celebrate the love and friendship in our lives. In that spirit, this is the last Update from the Field for the year. We will resume in January. Until then, we wish you and your family the happiest of Holiday Seasons.