The Long Nights of Winter: The Earth’s Sleep and Our Own

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Madronna Holden (copyright 2014)

Sleep is essential not only to memory and formation  of new neural connections, but also to our brain’s physiological maintenance.  Thus sleep researchers explain why we evolved this physically dangerous activity—picture humans asleep on our ancestral African savannah with nocturnal predators on the prowl.

The dreams that lace our sleep, in turn, are as crucial to our mental function as our daylight rationality. In laboratory experiments those deprived of REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming) sleep grow increasingly disoriented in their waking lives, finally hallucinating visions they are deprived of in sleep. REM is apparently our most crucial type of sleep, since it the type our bodies make up first after sleep deprivation.

Perhaps we most need dreams to remind us of the connections by which our world operates. Theologian Matthew Fox and biologist Rupert Sheldrake propose that in sleep we fall back into the experience of the primal oneness of life, bridging the boundaries that separate us from one another in the light of day.  There is something to be said for this, since our dreams are associative in nature, exploring connections of every kind, from the fantastic and the visionary to the mundane and spurious.

These nighttime associations alert us to what we might otherwise ignore — as in Gail Tremblay’s poem in Indian Singing in the Twentieth Century, in which the Coyote comes down from museum walls at night to dance with his curators. Like Coyote’s night business, ancient ceremonies honor the earth’s season of sleep in the long nights of winter by increasing awareness of what we may ignore in the light of habit. The early Roman Saturnalia that took place at the time of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) shifted the ordinary order of things, closing courts and schools, interrupting wars, dismissing old grudges—and reversing social statuses of master and slave.

Unfortunately, under the later Roman Empire, the Saturnalia degenerated into a licentious spree. Likewise, Coyote stories illustrate both the need for creative action and the need for balance in applying it.  Coyote tales in indigenous North American sometimes portray Coyote as a wise transformer and other times as foolishly self-defeating, his escapades destroying himself and those around him.

Thus Coyote tales explore the impulse of experimentation within us– but not everything we think of should be done. In like fashion, indigenous tales from pioneer days on the Olympic Peninsula warn that certain pioneer technologies had their downsides—making humans work harder when they were meant to make things easier.

Doing whatever he thinks of is Coyote’s method, but as his stories show, this is not a wise course of action. Without moral standards and critical assessment, our creative impulses generate unintended consequences—as do too many forms of technology in the modern day.

Our dreams with their associative structures are here to remind us what we might otherwise forget—that we live in an interdependent world. They create awareness as do the salmon-shaped stickers placed on storm drains that announce, “Drains to stream”. Our world is made up of connections—and thus the waste we dispose of goes somewhere to affect other lives.

Traditional winter ceremonies, in turn, make conscious associations like those our dreams make spontaneously.  Ceremonies in the indigenous Pacific Northwest emphasize the connections between the living and dead, for instance, and designate the long nights of winter as the occasion of storytelling, bringing ancestral memory to consciousness.

This parallels the case in old Europe, where the archeology tells us Stonehenge is both a monument to the solstices (especially the winter solstice) and home to the ancestors–  a five mile circuit  there linking the living and the dead.

Vision and memory merge in winter ceremonies as they do in our dreams–and these are linked with healing in its root meaning of “wholeness”.  This shamans know as they travel to the land of the ancestors to access healing power in long winter nights—and Merlin practiced in a folk history of Britain. building Stonehenge from stones with medicinal power.

Winter ceremonies thus honor the similarity between the physiological housekeeping that cleans our brains of waste chemicals in sleep and the winter housekeeping of earth, whose cleansing cold destroys particular viruses, bacteria, and molds— and thus inhibits the spread of certain diseases—a concern if global warming allows these to proliferate instead.  Indeed, the most recent meetings of the American Society for the Advancement of Science included a paper given by Michael Grigg, 0f University of British Columbia and the National Institute of Health, who observed that “ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens”–and thus the current “big thaw” is resulting in the “liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc”.

Fleas and lice are destroyed by a month in a deep freeze—as are the larvae of the wax moth that trouble honeybee frames. Winter cold is necessary to other things as well: without a certain number of hours of winter chill, the apple tree will not bear—nor will other fruit trees that have their own winter chill requirements.

Beneath the snow the soil works transformations that support life, composting waste into fertility. Like the resulting black soil, our deep selves are rendered fertile in what they remake from our psychic wastes—our pain, our confusion, our illness, our weakness, our vulnerability.

Black soil is life-sustaining. Light soil, which has taken on few wastes to transform, is feeble by comparison.

Many of us in the industrialized world live at conscious remove from the earth’s seasonal cycles.  But this winter’s storms have brought us back to that connection in no uncertain terms. For all our technological expertise, we are still embedded in the natural world—and we cannot escape responsibility for carbon pollution and ensuing climate instability.

The vanishing ice that the polar bear would rest on, the melting glaciers that cause sea levels to rise in island nations, and the melting permafrost that makes swamp of former solid ground in the Arctic, are a few of earth’s reminders of the necessity of honoring the balance of seasons.

Such reminders are a grave part of life in the Philippines and the Arctic—and thus their leaders are among the strongest advocates for reduction of the global carbon output.

Seasonal cold even has a role in keeping us warm. Raising temperatures– and thus melting polar ice sheets– may well cause North America and Northern Europe to suffer colder winters due to the influence of melting ice on ocean currents.

We cannot escape the necessity of seasonal balance any more than we can escape our daily patterns of sleep and waking. Just as the earth’s rhythms remind of the necessity of her seasons, our bodies alert us to our own cycles of light and dark.  Should we neglect either of these, we suffer reminders such as the wild weather this winter in North America—and the upsurge of breast cancer among shift workers.

Like the transformation of wastes into fertile soil, the caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon reminds us that that which is sleeping is also being remade.  Admittedly, it may be inconvenient to experience such melt—and the dissolution of all boundaries as the caterpillar must before it can realize its future as a butterfly.

But it is a wise society whose stories allow us to see beyond the boundaries habit and convenience describe. With their good work of exposing the results of our choices such stories release our creative vision as they allow us to remember our past and avoid its mistakes.

We could use a few such stories to shift the habitual order of things, giving us an occasion to loosen old grudges, stop wars—or reverse the roles of factory workers and CEOs.

We could use ceremonies that bring to awareness those ideas—or people—our society excludes, like the homeless who filled “warming centers” during this past December’s unprecedented cold (ten below zero) in my home of Eugene, Oregon.  Those tending these shelters re-gather into community men and women more easily ignored in fair weather when they are not so likely to die on our streets, as did the man for whom Eugene’s shelters are named, Thomas Egan.

We cannot escape the fact that these homeless are members—and results– of our society any more than we can escape the seasons.

As the earth’s ancient ceremonies indicate, the long nights of winter are put to good use in psychological and social cleansing cold.

Winter is a perfect time to remember we are creatures of vision as well as daily habit– to re-gather our memories, extend our community, and dream our future well.

Indigenous Peoples Day/ Native American Heritage Month: Remembering to Remember


In Braiding Sweetgrass  Indigenous botanist Robin Kimmerer relates the native teaching that the purpose of ceremony is to “remember to remember”.  That is a good guide for our upcoming US Thanksgiving ceremony.

Our modern worldview too often sees humans and nature in conflict– with the disastrous results of climate change and use of toxins that poison our own brains. In this context, it is important  to remember that there is another value system we might chose — and with it a history of successful relationship with the natural world.

Thankfulness is essential to that value system–and integral to the strikingly successful heritage in which humans lived together with other lives on this land for thousands of years.

As Kimmerer reminds us:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address [of the Onondaga Nation of New York State) without feeling wealthy. ” That address elaborates thanks for the people, the plants (with special additional thanks for food and medici9nal plants as well as trees) , the land animals, the fish, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the four winds, the thunder, the enlightened teachers, the Creator–and any other aspect of life that this homily might have left out.

Kimmerer continues:

“And while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumerist society, contentment is a radical proposition. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift, rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

The practice of gratitude, along with partnership with natural systems and respect for one’s place in past and future generations led to what Kimmerer terms the Honorable Harvest that cared for the land while it sustained the people.

Together these values and practices created abundance and biological diversity on indigenous-tended lands over thousands of years.

Seventy five per cent of the food and fiber we use on a global scale today was originally cultivated by native peoples of the Americas, who managed their landscapes organically and sustained themselves while fostering habitat for other lives.

Many of the essays posted here detail such management practices on the part of the Pacific Northwest’s First Peoples.  This essay tells another part of the story:  the ways in which pioneer emigrants were welcomed into this landscape by its native inhabitants.

In fact , without the generosity and expertise of Native peoples, pioneers would never have gotten here in the first place.  It wasn’t just the famous guide of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Sacajawea. Chief Sealth guided David Maynard and his party to Elliot Bay, where they founded Seattle.  That land was cleared and suitable for building because the native people had situated their own houses there, like Old Man House on Bainbridge Island, which was hundreds of feet long with over forty living apartments.

Tillamook elder Ilga showed pioneers the best farmland on Tillamook Bay, where the dairy cooperative, Tillamook Creamery is today.  It was good farmland because the Tillamook carefully tended it to encourage fertile grazing land for deer and elk.

Other pioneers settled in Upper Chehalis territory, following the guidance of Indians traveling near the mouth of the Columbia River, who came upon an emigrant family trying to drain a swamp and guided them to Upper Chehalis territory where there was more suitable farmland.

Once the pioneers arrived in the Northwest, native peoples continued to transport them and their goods and mail. Anson Dart, first Indian Agent of Oregon Territory, pleaded that Indians not be removed from territories west of the Cascades (the current Congressional plan), since the pioneers sorely needed the Indians to do “all the boating on the rivers”. Phoebe Judson, whose family worked a claim in Upper Chehalis territory before they moved on to Nooksak territory on the Upper Puget Sound, wrote in her journal that “one was perfectly safe in the hands of an Indian”.  By contrast, “Occasionally a white man came along who, thinking he knew more than the Natives, would insist on assuming control-sometimes with very disastrous results”.  Judson cited the case of Captain Barstow and G. N. McConnaha who overrode Indian advice about the safety of traveling in particular weather-and all members of their party drowned.

Indians were also responsible for communication between pioneers isolated on their claims. Thus Bob Hunter related that the pioneers of his grandfather’s era, who came across the Plains when there were “buffalo as far as you could see in three directions, “were always happy to see an Indian” because of the news they brought of other settlers.  Everywhere in Western and Eastern Oregon Territory, pioneers echoed this view with respect to Indian mail-carriers.

That was not the only reason to be glad to see an Indian. Relying on the Indians for food was a tradition begun by Lewis and Clark. When they left the Columbia River on their return trip east, they prudently stocked up on provisions, since they were coming into a territory with fewer Indians-fewer Indians from which to obtain food. Astoria traders settled at the mouth of the Columbia in the first decades of the 1800’s suffered deprivation when the Indians temporarily abandoned the area due to an altercation with the traders. “For want of their aid”, the traders “suffered considerably”, one of them wrote.

Having traveled through the seasons of good weather, wagon train pioneers arrived on the verge of winter with all their provisions gone. Indian traders who frequented the Columbia River brought familiar foods to incoming emigrants on the Oregon Trail-such as Elizabeth Goltra’s family, who were supplied with potatoes and peas by some Nez Perce Indians near Mt. Hood in 1853. If their case followed that of most Willamette Valley pioneers, the Goltra family would continue to be provisioned by the land’s first peoples when they arrived at their destination.  In Linn County, pioneer testimonies of Milton Hale, John McCoy, John Crabtree and several others, “Indicate that the Indians prevented starvation among the whites when the food ran out.”

Pioneer recollections of the generosity of Indians toward incoming emigrants were often touching. Near The Dalles, Loren Hastings’ family camped and waited for Indian transportation downriver.  While they were there a young Indian girl gave his father shoes for his bare feet. In Hastings’ words: “The little Indian girl drew from her dress a pair of very fine buckskin moccasins trimmed with beads which she fitted lovingly on the barefoot child.”

Just as the Iroquois Confederacy modeled the Articles of the Confederation for the thirteen US colonies, early pioneers participated in and learned from Native forms of government and cultural practices in the Pacific Northwest.  Sarah McAllister grew up on Nisqually council grounds where Leschi invited her family to settle. She wrote: “There were not enough [non-Indian] people to think about forming a government of their own.”  Therefore, the McAllisters “lived under Indian rules.”

When the James family moved onto Grand Mound Prairie in Upper Chehalis territory, they were the only residents except for the Indians, who had a fishing station a mile from their claim. The James family had originally fled England, where oppressive laws ousted farmers from their land.  When they arrived on Grand Mound, they recognized indigenous peoples who shared their democratic ideals. The local Indians wrote Anna Maria James, were “real aristocrats” as opposed to the presumed royalty of the England they had fled.

According to the journal of her daughter, Mary Ann Frances James Shepherd, their little pioneer cabin was “almost swamped by the Indians crowding in”. These Indians were “friendly and kind-hearted”, though the Chehalis made it clear that the James’s were their guests-and it was only with their permission that they were allowed to stay on.  As John Roger James wrote, the Indians liked to trade with them, but continued to insist the land was theirs (emphasis his) until his father doctored them through a smallpox epidemic.  After that the Indians officially chose to share their land with the James family, as a delegation of Chehalis came to their cabin one morning in 1853 to tell them, “As he had been good to them, giving them “Lemichine”, (medicine in Chinook jargon) and saving many of their lives.”

This set up the reciprocity that was essential to the ethics of local Native peoples. When a James family child tragically died of disease, they tore a board off the roof of their house to provide him with a coffin. Such reciprocity learned from the Indians was called “salmon interest” by the local pioneers. Accordingly, whenever a pioneer gave or loaned something to a local Indian, it would be returned with a large shiny salmon for “interest”.

When Ezra Meeker went on an extended trip, leaving his wife and two babies on a little island near Steilacoom, he arranged for a neighboring emigrant to look in on them.  The neighbor did not follow through, but all turned out well, since a local Indian woman took the initiative to come twice weekly to their house “with little gifts” when he was away, checking on his wife and children and seeing to their needs.

Women and children were often alone on their claims while men were off logging-or following the Gold Rush that one pioneer opined nearly emptied the Willamette Valley of its entire male pioneer population.  Such women-headed families elicited the sympathy and support of native peoples, as illustrated by an incident that took place near Cedarville, Washington. One day an Indian appeared at the door of their cabin and made hand signs to the mother and children in residence.  Unable to make them understand him, the Chehalis man walked into their cabin and took down a rifle that hung on the wall, along with three cartridges, and walked out again.  In a few moments, he came back with a deer slung over his shoulder, which he left for the hungry family.  He returned two unused cartridges along with the deer.

A number of emigrant children were mentored and even adopted outright by indigenous peoples-from the Sacramento Valley to the Olympic Peninsula in Nina Baumgartner’s story told here.  Siuslaw man Andrew Charles, was “a man to remember”, according to Norman Dick, who considered him his “godfather”.  On days when Dick was “cross” or “when  my mother was busy doing something else… he would gently take me in his arms and walk out to the creek where the water was talking and laughing as it was playing among the rocks.  He would sit on a log near the creek bank and hold me firmly in his arms. To the tune of the wind singing in the treetops, he sang softly low-toned Indian songs in a deep, tender voice.”

Andy instructed Dick to “Sit still and be quiet, and listen to this stream tell its story.” No two streams sounded alike, he told him. Indian children taught this wouldn’t get lost.

It was such knowledge of the land that Native peoples exhibited everywhere.  Along the Oregon Coast from Tillamook to Yachats, from Siuslaw to Umpqua, and from Coos Bay to Northern California, early ethnographer John P. Harrington found a “foot-by-foot” understanding of the land linked to the ancestral names of their places on the land.  This was so consistently rooted in generations of tradition that Harrington opined that an Indian “map of the coast” specifying tribal residence in 500 A. D. would replicate one made at the time of Lewis and Clark.

It was such knowledge Native people were kind enough to share when they guided, fed, taught and nurtured pioneers who became neighbors to them.

Native American Heritage Month is an essential follow up to Thanksgiving:  time to thank the land’s first peoples for their part in US history-to celebrate their generosity and their ancient belonging to their lands.

We would do well to help heal the injustices of our past by following through on the reciprocity Native peoples historically modeled for pioneers in the Northwest by supporting their modern bids for self-determination.


According to native traditions, plants serve as our first teachers, as they have lived in natural systems much longer than humans.

Accordingly, there are different ways to be immigrants–as Kimmerer sees in the models of different plants.  Thus “immigrant” plants like plantain with its healing nature and its ability to live in ravaged habitat, tucking itself into small areas where it modestly  fits in, show us how to be ethical immigrants– as opposed to plants like kudzu that overrun entire habitats, strangling all but themselves.

Kimmerer also reminds us that it is the responsibility of the immigrant to become indigenous to their place– which to her means honoring the past and its store of knowledge (including that built up over time in the inter-related lives of natural systems)– and our responsibility for the future in our attention and choices.

There is a powerful message of hope in both indigenous ecological  values and their empirical success. Thanksgiving is a good time to remember to remember that.


Here are words from the presidential proclamation on Native American Heritage Month (November):

“For millennia before Europeans settled in North America, the indigenous peoples of this continent flourished with vibrant cultures and were the original stewards of the land. From generation to generation, they handed down invaluable cultural knowledge and rich traditions, which continue to thrive in Native American communities across our country today. During National Native American Heritage Month, we honor and celebrate their importance to our great Nation and our world.”

As we honor these traditions, Congress might also consider the fact that the land’s first people prioritized consensus decision-making, in which all voices were heard and considered for the sake of those to come after us.

Here are the words of the National Native Heritage  law itself:

“Congress encourages the people of the United States, as well as Federal, State, and local governments, and interested groups and organizations to honor Native Americans, with activities relating to—

(1) appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities to observe Native American Heritage Day;
(2) the historical status of Native American tribal governments as well as the present day status of Native Americans;
(3) the cultures, traditions, and languages of Native Americans; and
(4) the rich Native American cultural legacy that all Americans enjoy today.”
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Happy Thanksgiving to You All!