The snow is gone. With a 40 degree shift in weather during some weeks – from -26 to +15 – our icy kingdom becomes, for a few hours, a dripping, sodden expanse of mud and poo. Oh! the poo. For month after frozen month it has accumulated steadily, immovable and inoffensive, in rings around the hay feeder, in piles in the barnyard. Now I wait with bated breath, manure fork in hand, for the thaw to complete itself and let me start shoveling, but I’m thwarted again and again as the air drops below zero every night and the ground refuses to relinquish its prize just yet…
The idle days of deep winter have surprised me. I’ve never before been so compelled to sleep. It’s delicious and awful – we all wake guiltily each morning, listening for the rooster, burrowing gratefully back into layers of quilts and dogs when he, too, seems unwilling to call in the day just yet.
After the initial shock of plummeting temperatures, we have grown accustomed to the cold, become smarter about our systems, and have realized how little work it actually can be, day-to-day, to spend the winter on the land (when you’re cheating with one foot still in the modern world).
Your world becomes smaller as the ice sets in, your days less ambitious. A day’s necessity is to keep everyone alive, fed, and watered, keep the pipes from freezing, throw another log in the furnace. Goals and timelines slow to a crawl, then a shuddering halt, on the days when your face hurts and your fingers freeze into unhelpful, burning claws. If you remember to write or sing or sew or philosophize, good on you.
The horses suffered visibly only when a sudden melt and re-freeze left them with a thick layer of ice to navigate. I watched them tottering carefully back and forth from hay to water and could feel the aching in their joints and muscles, the quivering exhaustion of constant tension. I spread wood chips and let them freeze into pathways, which they scorned or distrusted, preferring the certain uncertainty of braving the ice rink one hoof at a time. Nothing could be done – about this, or with them, or to them. I almost avoided them, as the growing list of requirements that I couldn’t get to in the cold set my anxiety alight every time I looked at them: hooves to be trimmed, manure to be moved, yearlings to be tamed, burrs to be removed, and so on.
So we waited. And in the waiting, we found something invaluable.
It took this crippling cold and a couple very potent pieces of permission for me to stop Doing and remember to Be. One of our readers, Mary Walby, and I were corresponding about the phenomenon of “less is more” in healing ourselves and others, and especially in interacting with horses. I must have mentioned my own impatience with myself, with the war between intuition and practicality. My intuition told me to stop trying to do anything, to let my horses be, adapt, and integrate into this new life while I did the same. My practicality or conditioning demanded that I do something, useful or not, simply to say that I had.
Mary suggested I give myself a set amount of time to Do Nothing and observe my findings, and to re-evaluate at the end of that time, thereby structuring the Nothing for my busy mind and relinquishing said mind’s grip on my soul. Besides, she encouraged me, so much can happen when you resolve to do nothing.
The second piece of permission came from a good friend, who explained that in permaculture theory, one is encouraged to wait an entire year to observe the land, weather, water and seasons before getting too busy with planning and designing. She legitimized my urge to be still as a way of observing, of respecting what is, and of ultimately being more effective when the time does come to act.
I took it all in and quit harping on myself. I resolved to do nothing – and allow myself to do nothing – until spring came.
Of course, as many of you know, doing nothing with horses is a truly astounding venue for discovery. So as I stepped back into relationship with them, offering nothing but my presence, I was instantly rewarded. I brought myself back to stillness, surprised at how far I’d strayed, and I went back out to the herd. It’s now a daily practice, whether I have an hour or 5 minutes.
Sometimes nothing seems to happen, but we all relax and I get some sun on my face and listen to the ravens and the rest of my day flows inexplicably more gracefully. Other days the horses drop, one by one, into the dry straw all around me, curling their beautiful furry legs and leaning against my body for the firm joy we exchange pressed back to back. Beyond us, the second orbit of dogs and goats and sometimes chickens luxuriate in the collective nothingness. Now and then, Firefly and I wander off away from the herd, away from her mother, not speaking or playing but caught and held in a silence we share like womb twins, up into the trees and through the empty forest, skimming like spirits over the rock hard snow crust, attached by nothing but the moment, and the next one, and the next. When I let my mind wander, she wheels and gallops home.
The change in all of us is subtle, but palpable, outside of these short ventures into presence. I witness less and less aggression and competition between the horses. The new guy, Falcon, a young rescue with no kind memories of humans, grows braver and more intrigued with everything around him, sniffing me with a new fascination and letting me slowly work on trimming off the long ski-tip toes on his hooves. Firefly calls every time she hears my voice outside, whether I am hollering at dogs or welcoming human guests or actually on my way to visit her. Each herd member is more attentive to my movements, as I suppose I am to them. They move aside more often than not with a look or a gesture from my hand, and seem less demanding, more contained in their horse-ness. Likewise I don’t feel the urge to touch or ask anything of them if they don’t offer. I feel more dignified, less scattered. They seem to smile more. As though all they really wanted was for me to be completely in my boots, with them here and now, no matter what the weather or the worries on my mind. As though I had actually managed to forget this one essential thing.
The morning sun on frosted treetops is more than my heart can bear; this land we’ve happened upon and taken into our hearts stretching out wide around us. I remember how precious it all is, the finality of every moment, and how much I want to be here now. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when I have no idea what I’m doing. Practicing in the stillness of the winter allows for these small noticings and bigger shifts. And this too will change, I know. Just as I begin to make peace with it, this stillness will slip away and melt back into life and movement; the seasons will march ever forward; the busy world will tug my sleeve and I won’t resist the pull. But I do hope I can carry a little of this grace and steadiness into the fray.