The trail through the snow was easy enough to follow at night, without a flashlight to show the way. Pausing occasionally, I’d wait until my eyes could discern the subtly darker shadow that snaked through a stand of fir and pine: a trail carved by my boots and supplemented by occasional moose, maybe elk or coyote. On the blackest nights, I let my feet find the route etched between the higher snowbanks. Sometimes it was so dark that I gauged the nearness of things by some kind of echo-location or felt-sense in the inky field between us. Walking through the snow to my tipi, I never used light other than the Milky Way or Moon. Sometimes the air sparkled with frost. Overhead, great-horned owls called to one another.
The Snake River hummed its winter song as I approached camp, flipped up the tipi’s door, and carried firewood inside. With a woodstove, my home—made of lodgepoles-and-canvas—was quick to heat and quick to cool down when the fire died out. I’d cut, gathered, and stacked wood myself, earlier in autumn, before the snow came. With a blaze started and a candle lit inside, I’d go out to gather another bundle of logs, and to be dazzled by the tipi softly glowing like a conical lantern in the snow.
If someone had been inside while I was away, I’d usually know shortly after I’d stepped across the threshold: something in the “energetic” of the cone’s interior had changed. The canvas skin barely reduced the volume of any sound from outside, but the quiet was immense, as we seldom know quiet. That is to say, crackles, whooshes, hoots, and slurps emanated from wild presences, but human-made sound was rare.
The river rolled past the small peninsula I inhabited. An adjacent creek’s chatter changed with temperature so reliably that I could detect a temporary thaw or a deeper freeze even while bundled beneath quilts and down sleeping bag. A muffling of water-song suggested snow heavy enough to enshroud the tipi had fallen in the night—a muffling I recognized later, when I again inhabited a house. Chickadees. Squirrels. The heart-accelerating, explosive, freeze-crack of branches in sub-zero cold. The pop of the woodstove expanding and contracting, the cheery sizzle of fire, the squeak of mice with whom I’d try to negotiate personal space, not always with success.
Daylight revealed tracks of whomever had visited in the dark. My nose learned to distinguish between the carnivore musk of coyote and the softer odor of herbivores. Sub-freezing air tasted metallic, while a day of sun sent pine odor aloft—or perhaps the rooty smell of mud, after enough warm days.
Living alone with only a thin membrane between myself and winter, in one of the coldest places in the American West, was a privilege from which I have never recovered. The privilege of living with all the senses wide-open and even extended, as perhaps our ancestors had lived. Listening with the whole body. Seeing with the ears. Re-membering a wilder sensitivity that still lives in skin and scent.
Even at 35 degrees below zero, living in a tipi never felt like a hardship, but rather an incredible blessing, a way of living more in accord with the wilder one who still inhabited my body, who still freely roamed an older, symbolic mind, who still animated the ancient strata of the deep psyche where the differentiation between me and the wilder Others was thin. At night I read by candlelight and by the flicker of the fire. I beaded deerskin pouches. I studied the literature of the Plains Indians, which affirmed my own simple sense of sacred Earth.
In those days I suspected, but did not know for sure, that I belong to a lineage of indigenous hunter-gatherers from the European Arctic—a lineage that extends back to at least the last ice age. Though I did not know it then, the lavvu shelter of the migratory Sami—my ancestors—is astonishingly similar to a tipi. My door faced east, as was both traditional and practical for wind shelter. I began to apprehend that even small gestures—like greeting the dawn or asking permission before cutting a bit of sage—mattered in ways that could not be explained to the Western mind.
Perhaps winter invites us to consider what our distant ancestors did to survive the season, especially if they inhabited places of darkness and cold. In the shivering depth of January, there is a visceral sense of the gratitude my ancestors must have felt for berries, reindeer, and salmon. I don’t know if they would have thanked gods or creatures—or perhaps snow and Sun—but I imagine their whole lives formed wild prayers of reciprocity. I imagine how other ancestors gathered wood or peat or coal to warm their children, how they feasted at harvest or hunt, how they ate sparingly when food was scarce, how they made boots, clothing, or tools in winter when they were confined to earthen huts or shelters made of skin. Perhaps we moderns forget that all of our ancestors once lived close to the body of Earth, intimate with wild ones, and at the effect of storms and seasons.
Our distant ancestors almost certainly lived with a cyclical, rather than a linear, sense of time, and knew the rhythmic dance of changing seasons. If they lived in places of winter cold and darkness, they knew how to prepare, how to recognize the standstill of the Sun at solstice. Perhaps they celebrated the returning light with bonfires. Perhaps they marked the mid-point between solstice and spring equinox with offerings to the life stirring underground. For the ancestors, individual well-being depended on the bonds of family and community. They could not live from day to day, as we do, always expecting the electricity to be on, the market shelves to be stocked, the credit card active.
Would the ancestors have chosen the modern lifestyle if they could see us now, so many centuries in the linear-time future?
The Moon is a potent presence in the depth of winter—especially when illuminating snow—hough in cities, ambient light blankets so much of the night that a person might be only dimly aware of La Luna.
In my tipi winter, Moon became my companion, my shape-shifting beloved, as she swam through the dark sea overhead, sparkling on snow and turning ice crystals into rainbows. It was impossible to not see that the world is still filled with magic, hidden in plain sight. Guidelines for living are all around us, present in the self-organizing patterns of the animate, intelligent Earth, where all wild beings offer something vital to their ecosystem communities. How might we yet learn from them to shape our human presence to honor the wild Ones, the beauty of Moon, the stillness of a forest deep in snow?
The great geologian, Thomas Berry, notably remembered a childhood experience that informed and guided the rest of his life—“a magic moment” when he witnessed a meadow in its perfection and beauty. Even as a very young person, he recognized that “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good.” This seemingly simple orientation shaped a complex, visionary, and deeply-rooted life.
Beneath a mantle of snow, Earth rests in winter, the soil insulated to tend microbes, mycelium, shallow roots, and incubating seeds. I incubated in my tipi that winter, grew my roots down, unshackled myself from any cultural notion of success in favor of a wilder unknown. Living so close to the elements opened up a farther horizon of possibility than the consumer culture prescribes. As anthropologist Wade Davis writes,
The human imagination is vast, fluid, infinite in its capacity for social and spiritual invention. Our way of life, with its stunning technological wizardry, its cities dense with intrigue, is but one alternative rooted in a particular intellectual lineage. The Polynesian seafarers who sense the presence of distant atolls in the echo of waves, the Naxi shaman of Yunnan who carve mystical tales into rock, the Juwasi Bushmen who for generations lived in open truce with the lions of the Kalahari, reveal that there are other options, other means of interpreting existence, other ways of being.
Once upon a time, before I ever dreamed of becoming a tipi dweller, I’d been an accidental systems engineer in Silicon Valley—perhaps a fine occupation for someone else, but disheartening for one who is far less interested in technological wizardry than in the closer-to-Earth marvels in which we are always embedded. If all human cultures are invented by the human imagination, as Wade Davis suggests, what led ours to create such damaging industries, social structures, and economy? At what point did the ancestors of Western civilization go from preparing for lean times to hoarding and stockpiling? At what point did safety and comfort—even at the expense of other people—become primary objectives?
The controversial research of archeologist Marija Gimbutas suggests that enormous shifts of power and worldview occurred when ancient, peaceful matriarchies were overtaken by hierarchical warrior patriarchies. In another view, eco-philosopher Paul Shepard sensed that the invention/discovery of agriculture changed human notions of time and of ownership of land and creatures.
Cultural ecologist David Abram notes that the emergence of written language allowed for abstract ideas with little connection to the embodied Earth—a mode of consciousness that would be alien to nature-based, oral, story-telling cultures. Native American philosophers Jack Forbes and Marcus Grignon have reflected on the Algonquin view of wetiko—a cannibalistic compulsion to consume other life-forms in search of power and profit that has now infected the world.
At some point in the malignant spread of Western civilization, a steady encroachment of poisonous fumes, industrial ugliness, mechanical noise, and other assaults on the senses became acceptable, even expected—part of the price of endless growth and “progress.”
But, as Wade Davis reminds us, there are “other options, other ways of interpreting existence, other ways of being.” The vast and mysterious capacities of the human imagination that have allowed us to create nuclear weapons, biocides, and the sixth mass extinction have also given us harps, Stonehenge, and the Hubble telescope—complex expressions of beauty or mystery, or of a great longing to know our place in the Cosmos.
Imagination shapes our common future. Even now, it is still possible to reimagine a human story that is beyond business as usual, and more embracing of the great mysteries and heartbreaking beauty of the wild Earth than the pillaging story that the dominant culture has been telling. Imagine that the beings of the future are calling forth a new human story, even now as you read, even as I write. As Terry Tempest Williams writes, “The eyes of the future are looking back at us, and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”
I knew I could not live in a tipi forever. But for nearly a year, it was home. Even though I had a marginal job and a VW bug, living so close to Earth—especially in winter—brought me achingly alive, mesmerized by the glimmering night sky, enchanted by the wilder Others with whom I shared a little riverside peninsula. Life amidst the raw elementals did not shrink my concerns, but rather enlarged my questions about what was imaginable not only for one human woman, but also for the primary relationship between human beings and Earth—as if Earth herself whispered in my ears and seeded my dreams with mystical beauty and visions of a vibrant world. A world where—even amidst such devastating loss of cultures, languages, wild lands, and species—magic and mystery still occupy the borderlands of civilization, waiting patiently for us to remember that we don’t know everything about the nature of so-called reality, or even about our imaginative capacity to create other possibilities, other ways of being human.
Magic emerges from ice and snow, tiptoes through forests in the darkest nights of wild winter. You might hear her spellbinding steps while listening with your nose and lips. Trees glow as if needles are lit with inner fire. Moon casts turquoise and amethyst jewels across the sky.
Crystals of snow dance through the air. A bear wakes and wanders earlier than usual, startling herself and a tipi dweller. This is the world. This is the precious and vanishing world behind the human-made world. Before it is gone, we might turn again to the wild Earth who made us to ask for counsel and direction, to ask how we might participate imaginatively and consciously, even now, in Earth’s unfolding dream.
Geneen Marie Haugen’s writing has appeared in many collections and journals, including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth, Written River, Parabola Journal, Kosmos, Ecopsychology, and High Country News. She guides with Animas Valley Institute.