Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter Solstice: a true story

This is one of the stories from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, which was published in 2008 by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago. I offer it again on the shortest day of 2013. The story, written ten years ago, describes a County Grounds that has undergone profound changes since then. And yet, the grove of trees at the heart of the story remains intact, for the time being. May it ever be so.

Late afternoon sun glows weakly through a thin skein of clouds.  On this darkest of days, it has never been far from the horizon. We leave behind a house and neighborhood as yet unlit, from which all color has been drained.  
So begins my family's annual pilgrimage, a private solstice tradition connected to 4,000 years of ritual observances rife with the symbolism of renewal. At the winter solstice (literally "to stand still," referring to the celestial moment when the sun stops receding from the equator) ancient peoples often referred to the "unconquered sun" because its descent into darkness is arrested. Ritual helped explain this event and drive off the "monsters of Chaos" that might prevent the sun's return, with catastrophic consequences. Prior to the construction of elaborate structures for the marking of the solstices, such as Stonehenge in England, these rituals often took place at sacred natural sites, on hilltops or in groves of trees.
Traffic on the Menomonee River Parkway is thin; its fittingly subdued sounds fade as we pass through the empty park. Across the railroad tracks, in the County Grounds, urban slowly yields to wilderness. Turned but snow-free fields still bear meager, dryly rattling cornstalks, hollowed skins of squash, and carefully bundled staking sticks. Our footsteps fall on progressively softer earth; the concrete street gives way to asphalt sidewalk, then tire-tracked dirt road to earthen trail; then finally to grass as we step off the path entirely.  No paths can take us from where we live to where we want to be today. 
Formerly waist-high grasses lie in arrhythmic whorls. Rigid stalks of sturdier plants—goldenrod, teasel, and milkweed—stand like punctuation marks in an undecipherable text. Ahead stands the grove we seek, in its already shadowed hollow, as the sun burns softly on the horizon.  Across the open meadow the wind is biting, but dies when we reach the dell. Pushing cattails gently aside, I test the ice atop the tiny rill. There is an open rift where water runs, black and silent, but the ice holds and we step across into the heart of the grove. A galaxy of animal prints—rabbits, raccoons, and many birds—swirls around its center of gravity.
 Among the smaller maples and ash is a tremendous, old black willow, with so many trunks that they go uncounted. They radiate from its open center like ancient standing stones. Several have fallen and resprouted. One scarred limb lies horizontally across the middle, its bark completely abraded off by countless climbing shoes. It assumes the roles of megalith and altar.

Out of the wind, it is suddenly warm, despite the icy ground. To dispel the gathering gloom, we light candles along the broken limb. Overhead the crown of the tree glows brightly. It is the moment of solstice—the standing-still sun. Our vigil combines solemnity with celebration; it also recognizes continuity between ancient archetypes and contemporary concerns. We honor the spirit of this place, the animals that share its shelter, the larger landscape all around, and the life-sustaining Earth; we uphold the unity of Creator and Creation; and we do all of this with a particular awe: we are here, minutes from home, in the center of metropolitan Milwaukee, and yet in quiet solitude, in the urban wilderness. 
When we emerge again to the open field, the golden horizon has cooled to magenta and a fierce winter wind flies in our faces. But the "monsters of Chaos" have been contained again; the darkest night will soon be gone; the land will persist and—beyond superstition—the belief is rekindled, that we as a people will learn to live in harmony with nature. The unconquered sun will be brighter tomorrow. 
This is one of a pair of posts in honor of the Winter Solstice. Click here for "Winter solstice ceremony on Milwaukee’s lakefront."

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