Winter has moved into the neighborhood, calling forth my annual response of woodfires, chili made from garden tomatoes and peppers saved in the freezer, and long slow walks around the land here. In the Medicine Wheel cycle of the seasons, Winter stands for all the gifts of culture, learning, planning and the resourcefulness needed to survive for another year. Winter challenges us to grow up. Although as the climate heats up, humanity might yet find that Summer becomes the season symbolizing the need for community in order to survive, for now, the image of Winter holds that call and promise.
The Winter Shield is also the North direction of the Medicine Wheel, a completion of the journey of initiation. As initiated adults, we bring our gifts to our people. I learned more about the cycle of initiation when we were invited to visit the Mohawk people a few years ago. We found not a one-time initiatory journey, but a seven year cycle of initiation–the time allotted for young people, assisted by committed and devoted elders, to fully grow up and take their place in that traditional culture. I began to consider that we also need to allow time for the unfolding of our own capacity to take our full place in community, and to give of our unique gifts. But while we don’t reach adulthood in one giant step, it’s important to mark and appreciate the steps we do take, and to see ourselves connected to the greater whole. So we can begin incorporating these changes as they occur, one step at a time. Perhaps this was the spirit behind the Mohawk community’s response to the Vision Quest undertaken by three young men: first they were acknowledged and honored for their accomplishment, then not yet having broken their fast, they placed themselves last in the lunch line, in recognition of their service to community.
How is the Winter Shield able to accomplish its task of cultural knowledge and competence? Just tuning into popular culture won’t do it. It requires a deeper, subtler mind than the one required to memorize and reason intellectually. There’s a sense of transmission here, and direct contact with a mentor or tradition feels essential. Gary Snyder wrote a poem, Axe Handles, in which he describes his son’s desire to put a handle on an axe head. They take an axe handle nearby as a model to carve the new one, and Snyder tells his son:
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with-.”
Then he realizes that his mentors Pound and Chen were his models, as he has now become a model for his son:
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
May you find your deepest gift to give this Winter season.