Finding Wonder in the Familiar, and Life in Death

Some of my most magical memories as a child were encircled by autumn. The spectrum of colors, the crisp whisper of night around the corner. I recall tromping barefoot across the backyard lawn with my childhood best friend—skipping and stirring a large cauldron of what we called magic potion (I think it was water and green food coloring—shh, don’t tell! ;-)), anticipating the enchantment of dusk.
How is it that so many of us let this magic slip away, as adults, and why is it that we find such nostalgia in autumn but often such distaste for winter—the very harsh, cold season autumn introduces?
I believe these two questions interrelate.
I can’t help but wonder if part of our adulthood-loss-of-wonder is due to our cultural amnesia—that is—amnesia of where we came from. Amnesia that this existence is clearly, not finite, and that in the fractal-like infinity of cycles, lies mystery and wonder. I say this from a purely naturalistic perspective. All spirituality and religion aside. A simple observation of seasons’ cycles clarifies the transformation of matter; things do not altogether disappear nor appear out of thin air.
Leaves turn to soil. Oxygen and food are metabolized by our bodies into physical energy. Snow melts into the ground. Nutrients from the soil and the previous year’s fallen leaves are quite miraculously taken up by seeds and changed into young, spring buds. Though science explains, in part, these mechanisms, their perfect synchronization still baffles me.
And so, wonder lies in this observation of revolving seasons. Remembering that I too, am a part of these natural cycles. We all are. Humans are natural substance; our existence can’t not be embedded within nature’s orchestra of recycling and regeneration; death and birth.
Similarly, wonder lies in knowing that all my skin cells die, are dissolved, and replaced with new ones within a 30 day cycle. I think keeping the wonder in life—for me at least—depends not only upon continual learning, but also upon continual curiosity, questioning, and simple observation. Listening to nature. And to listen, we have to pause. Autumn provides us the perfect opportunity to pause.
An awareness of these utterly natural, normal, fundamental cycles of death and birth leads me to the second question: Why is it that we relish in fall nostalgia but so often shudder at the thought of short days, cold nights, and seemingly lifeless landscapes?
Let us consider what’s happening underneath barren fields and blankets of snow: In the core of tree trunks, and through the rhizomes of roots. These landscapes are teaming with life. During the winter season, nature goes inside. The external, the apparent, dies. As it must. Focus falls inward in order for life to continue. In this way, death is a vital aspect of life. We recognize this in theory, yet live in a culture in which the word “death” itself is shunned. I propose, however, that we become curious about what it is death has to teach us. How could our lives become more vibrant by re-evaluating our relationship with death—even if it scares us?
Already, I suspect some readers may find the simple notion of re-evaluating our relationship with death somewhat morbid. I would further propose that to pursue life at the expense of death, as a species, is not only irrational but reflective of disease in much the same way that malignancy represents unbridled, unbalanced growth.
Could it be that we shudder at the coming of winter because the season itself—nature itself—beckons us to turn inward to that which frightens us?
Could it be that the cultural making of Samhain—a time when the veil between worlds of night and day, death and life, above and below, is thin—into the playfully frightful Hallowed Holiday stems from our recognition that death scares us?
It goes even deeper. We are enculturated to believe soil is dirty, and call it dirt. Soil is actually the most influential component of our food’s nutritional value. We are taught to believe compost and manure are filth, when in actuality, without these elements directly representing the death of living organisms (dead plant matter or decomposing tissue), our nourishment and life would cease to exist.
Death is not only a complimentary opposite to birth, to life, that completes a natural cycle. It is an essential part of life.
How would our perspective towards winter, long nights, and leafless trees shift if we saw this season for the magic it encompasses?
How may we feel more present to enjoy autumn’s magic, knowing that during the autumnal equinox approaching Samhain, we hang between two worlds: Day length reflects night length. As above, so below. And that during this season, we have the opportunity to turn inward and nourish that which feels most important to our vitality? We have the opportunity to love all apparently polarized facets of our inner landscape; the lovely and the terrifying; the perplexing and familiar; the uncertain and the comfortable.
How might we emerge from winter feeling nourished if we embraced the harvest season as a literal, and tangible time of self-nourishment, as Earth invites us to remember?
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