The year is ending and it is a time for solemn contemplation. But what is a year? Our calendar years are artificial, human constructs. So, too, are our weeks and months—arbitrary divisions of time that were devised over the course of human history for various organizational purposes-notches in the hieroglyphics of ancient civilizations and up to the present.
But here, in the dying light of a short December day, standing at the end of MacMillan Pier, I realize what is real: day and night, sunrise and sunset, the tides, the seasons.
Our ancestors were ruled more strictly by these natural realities: before artificial light sources, before central heating and air conditioning- although the tide still waits for no man: not then and not now. When people were more directly involved in procuring their sustenance— hunting and gathering, farming, fishing—they were more in touch with what the seasons meant. Early Native Americans on the Cape called the bright disk in the night sky in February the “Hunger Moon”- winter’s larder was in danger of depletion and spring’s promise was still weeks away: game was scarce and survival was at stake. Now my brightly-lit supermarket offers me any fruit of the season any time of the year. Am I better off?
There is something freeing about yielding to and acknowledging the power of these natural forces over our lives. To recognize our vulnerabilities is to be more genuinely human, to be truly alive. To cower in the face of a storm is no disgrace. One day in late November the sky suddenly darkened; the blackness was accompanied by powerful blasts of wind and a torrent of rain: who would not be humbled?
If we are wise we learn from our brothers and sisters, the fauna and flora. Their responses to the realities of weather and climate, to changes in day length and temperature, to tide and wind, are fine-tuned and beautiful. The timing of our returning spring birds is synchronized to emerging buds, seeds, and insects- although climate change is wreaking havoc with this synchrony. Torpor and dormancy is the correct response in so many: the frogs and turtles sleeping- one degree from death- in the mud; the stoic trees enduring the winter’s blasts, their buds secure until spring. The luxurious bushy tail of the sleeping fox covers its cold nose.
I watch the Common Eiders off the wharf diving in the cold grey water. As much as I have read about counter current heat exchange- the fact that their arteries and veins run alongside each other so that warm blood from the inner core, the heart, warms the cold blood running from the feet, the extremities- I can still not comprehend it: how many mussels must an eider consume to withstand the icy water that would surely stop my heart?
But we humans, naked apes, so bereft of the natural adaptations of the wild, do have something: each other. We evolved to rule the world, for better or worse, by banding together, by cooperating in clans and tribes, by helping each other. And no time of the season was more important than this one, in these shortest days of the year. Way before modern religions, there were ceremonies and celebrations.
The bottom line is: we need each other. The stark dark night beyond the firelight- and what it contained- drew us closer together. Centuries have passed but this has not changed. Now it is not the saber-toothed tiger, but a raging pandemic, an eroding planet, a disintegration of common civility, a rising of hatred and misunderstanding.
But peace and goodwill are not empty phrases: we reach out at this time of year, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we trust and believe in each other, and in the goodness and potential of the human spirit. We bring song and music, greenery and decorations, to defy these short dark days: we will prevail.
In the face of the pandemic, the social unrest and injustice, the ailing planet, the howling wind off the water: we will prevail.