We find ourselves again, treading through the wet damp dark of early winter. Rain patters on my caravan day and night. The river is high, a brown torrent cutting through the trees beside the sodden meadow. The shadowy track through twilight and dreamlands may settle fast into our bones as we trudge again into the frigid air to gather wood and swing the axe, dancing the rhythms that survival necessitates…but it will not go on forever. Fruits have faded and fallen. Empty calyxes dry into brittle spiders on bare stems, the smell of fermenting apples has dwindled into the earth. Life has gently receded but is far from extinguished; Crows and rooks caw and clonk in the morning mists as the fiery berries of Holly and the pale pearls of Mistletoe garland the wood. Shaggy cattle and ponies huff warm breath into the damp air, robust metabolizers of the pared back landscape. The guardians are here, evergreen witnesses to the turning year. We are well held in this dark mirror, to gaze awhile into the underworld, into the realms of dreaming and death. To grieve for what is lost, and for what we are losing, while the wild world slumbers and struggles through the seasons of less. Death has its sentinels – those who thrive and bloom in its company, and those many that endure.
Since I was very young thoughts of death and dying have often occupied me. My paternal grandparents died when I was age 8, a sudden disappearance not only of two warm and loving people, but of the older ways of life they carried as the last in a family line of rural village bakers. This experience of death was considered too distressing to expose a child to in any direct way, and so the bodies, the funerals and the grieving were largely hidden from me. Over the years I have come to realise that my parent's instinct to protect and shelter me from the pain of mortality is a widespread cultural trend. While at the time I was spared some shock and suffering, my abridged experience of death in childhood, accompanied by the disappearance of my beloved grandparents and the home they created, left a kind of vacuum and greyness in my world. At no point did I feel permission or invitation to feel the full impact of love and death within myself, to weep openly, or communicate about my emotions – and the spectre of those emotions terrified me, surely too big and wild to be acceptable. Like so many people, I suppressed my fears and curiosity, avoiding upset by not talking too much about my own or others deaths.
As I have grown older, the unknown that death represents has gnawed at me, and called me to journey more deeply into myself and the world in search of meaning and understanding. My questions have impelled many years of stalking the ineffable and essential; at times grasping at hope, at others reeling from revelations of delusion, but somehow along the way collecting grains of what seem, in their mystery, to be truth. Within nature, and within the rooting vitality of our own bodies, a language beyond what is spoken with the tongue and heard through the mind reaches out to guide us. I believe it is this guidance – and the sense of trust and belonging it engenders - that has allowed me to perceive the layers of fear, shame, rage and doubt that have obscured my ability to be present with death (and with love). Indeed, to discover that opening up the great well of sadness within me, far from miring me in terror and anguish (though these feelings do surface), actually brings incredible beauty and nourishment. It is a sustenance I have craved for many years, one that feels in my body like a layered quilt of community, the exquisite fragility of our lives weaving together in joys and sorrows…and the wildness we are coming so close to forgetting. Death work belongs to all of us, every being who by virtue of being born and breathing the air of this place, will also die. To it we each bring our own fears and gifts, our personal questions and pain. I am learning - it is all welcome. We are re-building the road home.
Gazing into the fabric of winter, I see a weft spun with accents of decline and hardship, and seamless warp threads stretched tight in an infinite wheel of potential. The weft is the stories, the warp the unbreakable structure they rest upon. Each year winter makes her cull…many creatures perish in the icy damp; those weak and old, those who have insufficient provisions to make it through, those whose homes or hibernations get disturbed. How does it feel to open the heart to this sadness, and through its lens feel the great losses of our age? - Seeing the sacred in every small body, in the magic of life expressed and the vacancy of life extinguished; loving and caring for life, for ourselves and each other in our excruciating impermanence. Talking about and preparing for what dying may ask of us; speaking and acting from our aching, beating hearts while we can. By turning towards and tending the winter on our doorstep, we begin also to tend the vaster ground of grief and loss that inundates the world beyond.
Author : Elizabeth Crawford
Elizabeth Crawford is a basket maker and herbalist living cooperatively in South Devon. Her work and life explore beauty, embodiment and deep relationship with the land as pathways to belonging within a wild and changing world. www.foragedfutures.co.uk