Little Land Spirits

Sunrise after Solstice

Sunrise, the morning after Winter Solstice.

In Scandinavia, there is a Solstice Eve tradition to leave a bowl of porridge outside for the Nisse, the little land spirit person who helps out with the work on the farm and serves as a guardian to the family and the animals. According to what I learned, it was very important to put a pat of butter on top.  The Nisse can be troublesome if not properly respected.

There are little guardian spirit people traditions in many other places, too.  Scots and English call them Brownies, there is the German Kobold, and I have learned about Wabanaki little people called Wonakomehsisok who were said to be spirit helpers who lived among rocks. The Wolastoqiyik spoke of Kiwolatomuhsisok, who were said to help people secretly at night, and have a breath that smells like mold.

All that said, on Solstice Eve, I put out a bowl of porridge in the back yard, with a big pat of butter on top, (which by the way is how I like my own porridge) as an offering for any little land spirits on our land that might appreciate it.  Perhaps it might be one more way to deepen our relationship with this land, to make friends with the spirits who protect and cherish the land.

Sadly, the next morning, it was still there, and frozen–but I moved it from the middle of the yard to the way back, where more wild creatures tend to go by. (We’ve put other food offerings out there in a similar way, and they disappear.) When I returned from my walk, I was happy to see a crow back there at the bowl, pecking at it with their beak.  They are also guardians of this land.

Crow eating butter – Version 2

Later, I discovered that the crow flew off with the pat of butter but left the porridge.  So I guess that our land spirits might not like porridge–which is after all a very European food tradition.  We’ll have to keep experimenting with other foods, to see what they prefer.  Still, I was happy to give a gift to the crow.

Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

For Those Who Are Blue

Some ministry colleagues shared these beautiful poems, and I thought that there might be someone out there who needs them today.

White Candle MJ DSC09662

Sweetness by Stephen Dunn (from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. Copyright © 1989.)

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet . . .

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

 

 

My Dead Friends by Marie Howe (from What the Living Do, © W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.)

I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question
to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child in my middle age?
They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling – whatever leads to joy, they always answer,
to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were – it’s green in there, a green vase,
and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.

Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,
Whatever he says I’ll do.

 

Blessing for the Longest Night by Jan Richardson (from The Cure for Sorrow
© Wanton Gospeller Press, 2016)

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

Moon in branches DSC02496This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.