A Long Winter
A Great Story Parable
by Connie Barlow
It has been a long winter.
Oh, we do admire the beauty of the white blanket of snow and the crystalline icycles that hang off our roof eaves like dragon's teeth. Those of us who sled or ski or skate especially delight in these cold days. But we are not creatures of the snow, like polar bears or penguins. We are not even creatures partly of the snow, like black bears or squirrels. We do not know how to ease our bodies into the comfort and deep sleep and slow, slow breath of winter torpor, of hibernation. We do not know how to safely cool our hot blood, for a long sleep in a long winter. Neither are we creatures who know how to rev up our internal motors to burn food and stored fat faster when the temperature plummets. The birds know how to do this. Even the tiniest chickadee, the most delicate nuthatch knows how to do this, knows how to stay warm by adding fuel to the fire burning in each cell.
No. We are not creatures of the snow and ice. Our furless skin was born in the sweltering tropics. Our monotone metabolism mirrors the African forest and savanna that shaped the human form.
And yet here we are today, right now, huddled together for the long winter night of a middle latitude in North America, huddled around a candle, a campfire. Darkness and cold and fiercesome creatures are held at bay by this precious gift of fire. Can you feel these terrors lurking in the shadows, behind our backs?
Fire is our friend. It is fire that carries us through the long winter.
We are the firemakers; so we have come to inhabit the entire world.
We are the firemakers; so we survive the long winter anywhere.
We are the firemakers; so we gather to tell stories around the campfire to carry us through the night.
We are the storytellers.
What stories do we tell? What stories did our ancestors tell around the fire on a long winter night? What animals were the heroes, the tricksters of those stories? What plants nourished those storied worlds?
I invite you to plung back in time now and speak the names of some of the creatures who captivated the hearts and minds of your own storytelling ancestors. What names do your deepest memories call forth before the fire of a long night? Let us honor our ancestors and the old stories by speaking those names. [Pause to allow group participation]
These old stories are still with us. They still delight, guide, and empower. But the time of storymaking is not over. We have new stories to create, new stories to tell and celebrate on a long winter nightnew stories that our ancestors could not possibly have known.
What new story shall we tell about this homeland? What new story will help us through this long winter night? What new story rises out of the very forests and mountains that surround us here?
There are many new stories, but the one I am moved to tell tonight comes from a time very long ago by human standards, but not at all long ago at the pace of mountain building and erosion, shifting climates, and the evolutionary dance of life.
It is a story of a time a mere twenty thousand years ago a blink of time on the scale of a five billion year old planet, of a thirteen billion year old universe.
This was a time when ice covered the land. Twenty thousand years ago, ice covered the land summer as well as winter. Ice covered the land precisely where we now sit. The ice oozed down as glaciers from the Hudson Bay region of Canada, carving the Finger Lakes to the north, the Hudson River just over the rise. The ice was so thick that it oozed over and sculpted the mountains. Even the peak of Hook Mountain was buried in ice.
Dark, cold, shrouded by ice. Twenty thousand years ago, right here. All soil scraped away. No forests, no hibernating animals, not even seeds lying in wait. All life scraped away. The land waiting in cold, heavy darkness.
Bears and squirrels and trees and flowers had been nudged southward as the ice advanced. Some species took refuge in the ice-free zone of what we now call Virginia. Others needed to flee further, following the warmth into what we now call Georgia. Still others were pressed to the brink, to the very edge of the continent, where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico consume all further possibilities. It was there in the Florida panhandle, in the rich bottomlands of the Apalachicola River, that one of our most wondrous trees took refuge through the long winter. It was there that our magnificent tulip tree, Liriodendron, with its huge magnolia flowers and astonishingly straight trunk, waited out the long glacial winter.
Europe didn't have an Apalachicola River valley. Europe had only the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the shores of the Black Sea, and the cold peaks of the Carpathian Mountains in between. This formidable barrier of seas and high altitudes existed too far north too far north for the tulip tree of Europe to find places of refuge. So Europe lost its tulip trees. Europe lost its magnificent tulip trees when the ice rolled south.
Refuges for a long winter: How vital these are not only for the diversity of life but also for long winters in our own lives. How important it is for us to create geographies of hope and trust: our own Apalachicola valleys of the heart and soul for our own long winters.
What delicate treasures do we sequester in our refuges of soul? Where do we nurture faith that the winter will subside, that spring will indeed come again, that our own tulip trees will be welcomed back? How do we nourish trust that vibrancy and full life will return once again? How can we muster the faith that everything is indeed "right on schedule"?
It has been a long winter.
CONNIE BARLOW is a science writer and author of The Ghosts of Evolution, Green Space Green Time, and Evolution Extended.