Thoughts on the Winter Moons
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
The Snow Moon; Usgiyi
When winter arrives it brings with it a time of great fasting. It is a time of darkness, and of dying, which is in preparation for the re-birth that arrives in the spring. Now, pardon me as I once again fall back on Cherokee ritual, and beliefs, to express some aspect of this season that we are entering, but you see, a story struck my mind and spoke to me as I contemplated on the cold.
To begin, there are three moons of winter. Snow Moon (Usgiyi), Cold Moon (Unolvtani), and Bony Moon (Kagali). The Snow Moon corresponds with our month of December, and it is a time for putting away and storing up. It is ushered in by the snow man, who blankets the high places in snow while the earth rests until the re-birth of the new seasons. The Cold Moon is a time when the fires that burned throughout the year are extinguished and re-lit in correspondence with the first appearance of the sun’s daughter, or the Morning Star / Venus as we know it. And Bony Moon is a time to prepare a feast for those that departed this world, and to tell stories of them. It is also a time for fasting and observance. Throughout these cold winter moons the Cherokee people prepared their tools for the oncoming warm seasons, and the elders told stories throughout the long waiting of the cold dark months.
In the book 13 Moons, by Charles Frazier, the main character is a young boy and newcomer to the Cherokee Nation, in the time before the Cherokee were forced west. He is taken up by a mentor, Bear, and Bear keeps a winter house. The winter house is a small clapboard structure insulated with mud, not big enough to walk upright in, and lined with small bunks made of river cane mattressed with hides. At the far end of the structure is a smoke hole and a small hearth.
“Bear claimed there were old men and women he knew as a child who practiced a deep form of winter sleep and could den up nearly as long as anything else. Those old ones would not eat or drink or dream or even rise from slumber to piss for nearly three months. But now the exact art of it was lost, like knapping flint into knife blades sharp enough to shave the hair on your arms.
Even without that lost art of sleep, our emergences into the world were so seldom and brief that it was hard to keep up with the changing shapes of the moon.”
And so the two spend their winters in a state of fasting, and of continuously drifting between sleep and the stories that they tell each other. As they told stories the inevitable theme of man’s fragility and his place in the world arose. How could it not, when the winter world surrounding them was seemingly void of life, dark, and bitter?
"An interesting fact…Bear stated… that the deer has just enough brains to cure its own hide. No more, no less."
“There was plenty of time for thinking in the winterhouse with the snow banked almost up to the low eaves and the world silent as death except for the little trance-provoking sounds of the fire. I decided that many of Bear’s stories and comments shared a general drift. They advised against fearing all of creation. But not because it is always benign, for it is not. It will, with certainty, consume us all. We are made to be destroyed. We are kindling for the fire, and our lives will stand as naught against the onrush of time. Bear’s position, if I understood it, was that refusal to fear these general terms of existence is an honorable act of defiance.”
The deer has just enough brains to cure its own hide. No more, no less.
For myself the winter moons contain a duality of notions. On one hand, it is a reminder of how out of sync we are with the natural world around us. We can no longer den ourselves up, close our eyes with the gray bare trees and succumb to the deep sleep cast down on creation by the snow man. But on the other hand, we have evolved to guard ourselves against the cold by storing up wood for our stoves and provisions for our pantries for when creation ceases to give up her crop. Instead of hibernation and dreamless sleep, we are called to suffer the cold and yield to our own humanity.
Unfortunately, we have become too well adapted. We move from house to car to work, guarded against the elements in our woolen garments, then likewise, transition back from work to car to house, and hole up in our den in our own modern form of hibernation. However, when we do break from our dens and go out into the wintery world and go up into the snow-covered mountains, forcing ourselves to adhere to their great silence, we often discover a rather different world and a rather different beauty.
In the winterhouse Bear tells the story of the grief he suffered after his first wife, Wild Hemp, was murdered by white raiders during the Revolutionary War. The ghost of his wife beckoned him to follow her into the night land, and he nearly went. However, he resisted her pull by going to the water everyday, and there he immersed himself in the cold mountain streams.
“He went even when big wet snowflakes fell all around him and disappeared into the black water without making even a brief dimple in its smooth face.” The story tells us that at first Bear suffered the cold, but as the seasons marked on and he watched the trout come to drift into the current waiting for food, and, too, witness the summer storms ride down the valleys, and the autumn leaves turn red and yellow dropping from the overhanging branches and float along, and as the cold of the stream turned his fingers and toenails blue he gradually synchronized himself with the natural world of the present and came to terms with his dead love.
“All that year he marked the flow of time by the growth and wasting of moons, and he mourned the deaths of each of Wild Hemp’s four souls in turn.”
In this season of winter it is my hope that many will gather round the warmth of winter fires, that you will tell the old time stories with family, prepare for the re-birth of spring, but that you will not shield yourself too often from the cold, but will at times, like Bear bathing in the cold springs, will open yourself to its cleansing. I hope you do not fear winter, but actively defy it by getting out into it and immersing yourself in what it has to teach you.
Here is a story for you to share this winter. Just click on the pages below to scroll through the Jack Tale.
This story is copied from Gail E. Hailey's, Mountain Jack Tales. For more Jack Tales follow this link to purchase a copy; http://www.amazon.com/Mountain-Jack-Tales-Gail-Haley/dp/1511515511
Tips for Cold Weather Backpacking
For those who are bold enough to brave the cold, winter backpacking can present interesting challenges, and great rewards. Here are a few tips for your cold weather outing:
· Gear is everything! Be sure you are properly prepared with quality gear. Plan on carrying more clothing, a thicker sleeping bag, more food, and nearly twice as much fuel as you would expect to carry in warmer weather. Most recommend a pack size of 4,000 cubic inches to accommodate your gear.
· Take your time. Winter backpacking is slower. Whether it is heating up your morning coffee, setting up your camp, or covering miles, plan on slowing down. You are not going to meet your usual average daily miles. Whether it is due to hiking on frozen or snow covered terrain, or due to the extra time in camp, don’t get ambitious on planning your itinerary. Regardless, slowing down helps you enjoy the time you have set aside to take in the woods.
· Stay Dry! Staying dry is always a challenge when backpacking. In the summertime in the southern Appalachians one will always count on being wet, either from the rain, or from sweat. Most will hike in one set of synthetic clothes, and at camp change into another clean dry set. This is even more important for the winter. If you are breaking a sweat on the trail in the winter, then re-evaluate. You should either strip down a layer, or slow down. Unlike the summer, in the winter wet clothes may never dry back out.
· Stay warm in your sleep. If nothing else you should be able to rely on a clean, warm, dry sleeping situation. Carry a good winter graded sleeping mat to provide insulation from the ground. The cold ground will rob your heat if you are not prepared. If you find yourself still struggling with a cold night sleep try boiling water and filling a Nalgene with the warm water and putting it in your back for warmth.
· As always, let some one know your itinerary, and when they can expect to hear from you!
Clothing (Remember, Cotton Kills)
• waterproof/breathable jacket
• waterproof/breathable pants
• fleece jacket or wool sweater
• waterproof gaiters (these will keep the snow out of your boots)
• synthetic or softshell hiking pants
• fleece pants
• synthetic or marino wool long john tops and bottoms
• long sleeve T-shirt
• synthetic briefs
• synthetic sports bra
• wool or fleece hat
• midweight or heavyweight wool or fleece gloves depending on your enviroment
• waterproof overmitts
• insulated camp booties
• waterproof hiking boots (insulated is best)
• wool or synthetic socks (3)
• sun hat
• internal or external frame backpack
• convertible or four-season tent
• down sleeping bag (-30° to 0°F)
• inflatable sleeping pad
• and, or, closed-cell foam sleeping pad
• trekking poles (recommended for snow and ice conditions)
• white gas stove and fuel bottles
• lighter and waterproof matches and or fire building kit
• cookset w/ heat exchanger
• eating utensils, bowl, and insulated mug
• headlamp w/extra batteries and bulb
• 32 oz. water bottles (2)
• pocket knife or multitool
• compass or GPS (and map)
• first-aid kit with personal medications
• personal locator beacon (optional)
• chemical heat packs
• stuff sacks
• assorted zipper-lock bags
• sunscreen (SPF 15+)
• lip balm (SPF 15+)
• toilet paper and trowel