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November Reminds How We Are All Interwoven In Nature

The annual slide into seasonal darkness and quietude is, for MoJo columnist Susan Marsh, a time of reflection on our spiritual connection to the Earth—and each other

We sometimes forget that every indigenous human society is rooted in a deep spiritual relationship with the Earth—as life-giving force in which existence is calibrated to the contrasts of darkness and light. Susan Marsh does not see shorter days as being a time of doldrums, but reflection on gratitude and reverence.  Photo courtesy Hank Perry.  Perry is a board member of Mountain Journal. To see more of his work, go to www.naturalrealm.com
We sometimes forget that every indigenous human society is rooted in a deep spiritual relationship with the Earth—as life-giving force in which existence is calibrated to the contrasts of darkness and light. Susan Marsh does not see shorter days as being a time of doldrums, but reflection on gratitude and reverence. Photo courtesy Hank Perry. Perry is a board member of Mountain Journal. To see more of his work, go to www.naturalrealm.com

By Susan Marsh

November. 

I once dreaded it for its darkness and drabness and the cold biting rain that met me day after day when I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest. I moved to the Rockies for graduate school when I was in my early 20s, and I never left. 

Winters in this region, Greater Yellowstone, were a revelation: powder instead of Cascades concrete, cold dry air and blue skies instead of bone-chilling rain dropping from clouds of dishrag-gray.

November is still a dark, damp month, yet it offers its own surprises, not the least of which is how nice the weather can be. There is something about the incongruity of long shadows and warm air that makes each day feel like a personal gift.

In November, sunlight glances at a low angle through cured grasses and the drying remnants of leaves still clinging to willows and wildflowers. On steep forested hillsides the angle of the sun matches that of the slope, so that light creeps along the forest floor under the crowns of Douglas-fir and pine, igniting the bare branches of spirea and huckleberry, combing brightness into limp pinegrass and the curled dry leaves of fairy bells—a slanting tablet of sunlight between the dark foliage of the conifers and the trail where I stand. 

In November you can make a free right turn at an intersection and follow a long empty stretch of road ahead. The trails are uncongested, and there is no trouble finding a place to park at the trailhead. The land seems to breathe a sigh of relief, returning to itself rather than serving as backdrop for countless selfies and picnics.

The thing I notice most about this time of year is the quiet that falls like a gentle sleepy sigh. It has rained and snowed by now, so the fallen leaves no longer crunch underfoot. A fireweed seed head stands in a tangle of curled empty capsules, like a miniature wire sculpture. It bends rather than breaking as it would when dry. The creeks and rivers run low. Ponds shrink into pools surrounded by tall grasses, willows, and cottonwoods. 

Along with the silence is a relative absence of other creatures. Chiselers and marmots are underground, pronghorns and songbirds retreat to winter lodging. During the daylight hours when I’m out walking even the chickadees are secretive. After a spring of birdsong and a summer of watching fledglings grow up, after an early fall during which the aspens in my yard were full of warblers and kinglets filling up on aphids, it can be a bit lonely. 

The house feels especially lonely during the long dark hours of afternoon and evening. I turn to books for company. Lately, instead of the latest natural history title, I’ve been reading about a topic that has escaped my interest for decades: early Christianity. Why? I suppose it’s an addition to my collection of spiritual-psychological writings that range from Rumi poetry to Alan Watts, and this seems like something different. Something I missed or skipped over during the required religious training of my youth.

From what I can make out, mostly thanks to scholars including Jacob Needleman and Elaine Pagels, no one was in charge of this subset of Judaism for its first couple of centuries, and diverse ideas competed for supremacy. As one school of thought gained traction others were labelled heresies.

This comes as a surprise to me—I thought heretics only showed up during the Middle Ages, to face gruesome executions at the hands of those supposedly following the teachings of Christ. I thought the faith started directly with Christ, not decades after his death, complete with instructions about how it was supposed to be administered. It seems odd that the actual history of such a major worldwide religion was never taught to its flock.

If I’d been around in 100 C.E., I surely would have been among the heretics. As it is, many centuries later, I’m finding a measure of comfort on these bare November days in one of the heterodox scriptures—heterodox for not having been included in the standard New Testament. It’s called the Gospel of Mary, so I don’t wonder that it was left out. In any case, it cheered me to stumble upon an unfamiliar bit of dialogue that I paraphrase below.

One of the Apostles is quizzing the risen Christ. Tell us about matter. Will it survive or not? (Interesting question, I think, given our estimates of when the sun will consume the earth, a few billion years hence.) The Savior answers, “All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature.” 
One of the Apostles is quizzing the risen Christ. Tell us about matter. Will it survive or not? (Interesting question, I think, given our estimates of when the sun will consume the earth, a few billion years hence.) The Savior answers, "All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature." 
Wow, I thought. I had a hunch that the Creator didn’t put the world together simply for the exploitation of humanity, but to see those words attributed to Jesus—amazing. All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other.

I’ve long considered other forms of life to be companions, their existence and natures interwoven with my own. Many religions teach some version of this concept, but not the one I grew up in—it was all about people and our sins and obligations. No mention of kinship with nature or care for beings other than ourselves. This omission created a hole in my faith large enough to walk through, which is basically what I did— though and out.

It’s too bad I wasn’t exposed to some of those heterodox writings long ago. The new-to-me gem from one of the Gnostic Gospels feels like a gold coin buried under a pile of pennies. I don’t have to go rummaging around in other traditions to find something of comfort about our true relationship to the earth that is our home. I don’t have to jokingly call myself a ‘pagan’ anymore. 

I took time off from college after my freshman year, having no idea what I wanted to study. I found friends and mentors among Catholic nuns who lived in a communal house instead of a convent (it was the 70s), aging communists, and conservation-minded professionals. 

While riding with one of those friends on our way into the Cascades for a backpacking trip, I mentioned how impressed I was by the dedication I saw among those who advocated for wilderness. They knew so much and shared their knowledge with neophytes like me. They were willing to drive long distances to attend public hearings. They strenuously cared.

Karen laughed knowingly. “Well, what do you expect?” she asked. “They have the religion.”

Somehow I knew exactly what she meant. It was a conviction that was budding in me as I drifted away from the teachings I’d grown up with. 

In more recent years I have been heartened by the growing movement of ‘ecological theology’ (say that one fast three times). It’s God’s creation, in a nutshell, and we must not defile it. Between this movement and my recent discovery of a long-lost piece of Egyptian papyrus, I can feel the divergent branches of my own life growing back together.
So I decided to challenge myself in November to write a poem of praise and gratitude every day. It’s the first thing I do each morning (after making coffee) and although the poems themselves are not the best, it’s the act of writing them that matters. Writing down what I notice in the quiet early morning, what I’m thankful for, what I’m reminded of from yesterday’s hike or last night’s dream.
And so I decided to challenge myself in November to write a poem of praise and gratitude every day. It’s the first thing I do each morning (after making coffee) and although the poems themselves are not the best, it’s the act of writing them that matters. Writing down what I notice in the quiet early morning, what I’m thankful for, what I’m reminded of from yesterday’s hike or last night’s dream. Thinking of something new and different each day to contemplate with love.

It’s not the same as joining a spiritual community with its time-honored rituals, but creating my own ritual is a start. It helps ease loneliness and gives a sense of accomplishment: I wrote a poem today! It starts my day with hope instead of despond, and it reminds me of all that matters most, from the chickadees waiting for their hulled sunflower seeds to the care and nurturing I need to learn to give myself.

Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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