Sunday, January 1, 2012

Winter Count

It is the first day of the year, and the endless rain has rolled back into a gusty day revealing flashes of sunlight and cloud. I woke in the pre-dawn darkness to a thunderstorm outside my window, hail hammering on the roof, the sky vivid with the yellow-blue glare of lightning, as though the passing of the old year was marked with a fanfare, a raging against the light of the new day.
We walked this morning in familiar oakwoods, flushed green with the iridescence of mosses; the mustard-colour of sphagnum, the conifer-green of star moss, fern mosses the soft colour of summer pasture. Flakes of lichen lay abandoned amongst the moss carpet, their earthy mealiness so strange upon the sodden earth. Lichens have the colour of stone in a summer drought, they alone are immune to the endless damp, aloof amongst the perpetual rain.

Above us, two ravens detached themselves from the dripping crags and gusted sideways on the breeze, lazily surveying the valley, the scree, the fuzz of oakwood soft on the hillside below them. A scatter of fieldfares flashed white against the dense green of the conifers; their bouncing flight makes me think of children released from school, impatient with energy, unbidden.
I found myself thinking of Barry Lopez's haunting story Winter Count 1973: a story of the traditions of the native americans, and their effect upon an ageing man who, in his own life, seems to have moved from being an academic studying the native tribes, to someone who feels deeply and personally their connection with the land. Central to the story is the concept of the 'winter count'; a way of marking time and the passage of history: “Among several tribes on the northern plains,” we are told in the epigraph, “the passage of time from one summer to the next was marked by noting a single memorable event. The sequence of such memories … was called a winter count.” This was a way of recording oral history for a people whose days were marked by the changing of the weather, the seasons, the movements of wild animals and birds. It relied on observation, on collective memory, on a sense of the tribe as one's people; those to whom we were in some way beholden by dint of obligation, by kinship and a common humanity. It is a valediction for all that we have lost, in the face of an uncertain and venal world.
It is also a reminder that history is a process of telling stories “Everything is held together with stories” the protagonist in the story thinks, “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Our New Year walk is now a family tradition; one of those fixed points of the year which is no less enjoyable for its familiarity. It is a time to open our eyes, to see the wild world in its numinous and chaotic beauty, to note those details which mark the progress of our lives like the passage of winter thunderstorms.

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