At least it’s what I figure Antarctica must feel like: bone chilling wind that can cause hypothermia and frost bite in a matter of minutes; everything as far as the eye can see white—sometimes no horizon, or blue sky, or any distinction between the celestial world and ours.
I am figuring in Antarctica the animals are masters of knowing how to hunker down and generate their own heat, and how to turn from the wind and be still, and how to burrow into deep snow and gear down into a suspended state until the storm passes.
I have heard of the penguins there and their intricately organized communities. They work in shifts to keep the inner circle warm. They have a system for keeping their young protected. They move in tandem and they follow an inner compass that tells them when and where to go.
I watch my horses and how they keep themselves warm from the inside out—eat more hay, drink more water. Their hooves don’t grow as fast because they are using their energy to stay warm. Their coats become thick, dense versions of their summer and spring coats. This winter fleece emerges almost over night when it starts to get cold.
Just while writing this, I was interrupted by what sounded like giddy children screaming and laughing. It was coyotes on our property. Remnants of their hunt gave me clues by flashlight—three coyotes came from three different places and met where the snow told the story of a struggle. No doubt food is harder for them to come by and they took a chance to come here even though we have dogs that patrol every night. Did they agree unanimously, did they follow their alpha? They are pack animals so they work together with their own particular kind of symbiosis.
And this morning on the banks of the Wabash my son and I encountered two bald eagles looking for food. Frozen chunks of river have intermittent places of open water. They were watching, waiting. One swooped down and then floated back up to its sentry point into the spindly tree branches of winter.
I take heart in feeding the animals under my care. There is not much else I can do to help them find warmth. Our barn locked up tight is still not heated. And you can’t bring horses in your house. The animals that do live in the house with us are fully aware of this sobering cold. The stick close to home and don’t go out for long.
Here in Indiana, I have learned the lessons of winter in ways I never have even though I spent several winters in Chicago and in Santa Fe. I have felt different kinds of cold—high desert cold, lake effect cold. In those brushes with cold I could put on slippers and make hot tea. I could bundle up and go from house to car and car to house and avoid too much exposure. But here, the cold is especially intense this winter—negative twenty degrees, negative forty with the wind chill. The worst in decades, maybe forty years some of the locals say. And my life has a different rhythm and purpose here. I can’t hibernate. I don’t have the same buffer zone I had before. I have animals to tend. Animals who can’t come in our house and who must weather these brutal days and nights, some with fifty mile an hour winds that make your skin on fire from cold and your eyes water to keep themselves from freezing.
I am learning new lessons from Our Mother, the earth. I am taking in new wisdom from Our Sister, the wind. And I am gathering in new habits from my family of animals who show me the way when I have lost my bearings in the seamless snow. I consider the grass under the snow and all the life beneath the surface biding its time every time I make my trek to the barn.
It is no coincidence that these lessons, this wisdom, these habits re-member so many of the lessons I learned in pregnancy. The winter is a gestation time for mother earth. And she teaches us to wait, to be still, to trust our bodies to generate their own heat and to find nourishment from the most basic sources we can.
In pregnancy I had to unlearn my habits of frenetic activity and being productive, of rushing from one thing to the next. My body needed things to be slower, more still. And food became not something I enjoyed, but what I took in because I needed it to generate and sustain life—my baby’s and mine.
And this winter asks similar things from me—slow down, stick close to home, focus on nourishment for those under your care, the best food comes from the simplest sources. This winter I have heard the earth caution me: don’t fight against the cold because you won’t win; honor it by taking good care of what’s around you. I hear the wind insisting that I respect the gestation process, and that I do my part to nurture life as it broods its way through this underground time.
If I never make it back to Antarctica again after this winter I pray that I will remember my sojourn through this simulation of her wise ways. May I re-member the promise of dormancy and endurance. May I hold on to the logic of heating ourselves from the inside, out. May I stay close to the necessity of community and connection. And may I never forget to thank Our Mother for the promises held in trust in her glacial gestations.
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian minister who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond. She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football. Her new book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big Time Sports, is forthcoming from Cascade Books this year.