Every year is a cycle of living and dying, and every transition is medicine. In winter we approach that beauty of endings. As the cold pushes life back to the roots, the land enters a kind of dreamscape. A stretch of consciousness that carries us into death, and then beyond. (And could this year’s winter be any deeper of an initiation into that death journey?)
The sheer depth and length of darkness in winter’s tilt creates a perfect cocoon for a season of dreaming. With only the faint milk of a winter’s day and a preciously guarded stockpile of wood, many traditional people spent much of the wintertime in intermittent sleep. With the hours of darkness dominating the luxury of light, winter was a time to explore one’s dreams. It was a season of recognizing what continues to exist despite the waning of all outward life. Just as dreaming helps us explore what lies outside the boundaries of our day-to-day existence, winter takes us on a journey to see what lies beyond the door of death. Even as our eyes perceive the fading of the aboveground world, streams still continue to flow, owls swoop quietly from bare branches, and evergreens remind us that the realm beyond death is flecked with ever-present life.
In many cultures, winter is considered the realm of the ancestors and the shaman alike, those who are the keepers of this beyond-death realm. With the hold of the physical world loosening its grip, it was a time of inward journeying. An exploration of pure being, without the fetters of such a physically oriented routine.
In sleep science there is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping called hypnagogia. Termed a “threshold consciousness,” in hypnagogia our mind dwells in a borderland, not fully in waking alertness and yet not entirely in the amnesia of sleep. We rest, instead, between the worlds. During the long hours of the night, with few distractions to keep us occupied, people would traditionally slip in and out of sleep for many hours. With darkness quilted around you, there is little distinction between the mystery of dreams and the mystery of night.
When we allow ourselves to rest in this in-between state of hypnagogia we interact with our own inner muse. According to some researchers, this hypnagogic state is some of the most fertile time for creation within our brains. A time for connecting to new thoughts, inventions, feelings, and directions in our lives. This winter, allow yourself long hours to simply lay in the darkness, rest by candlelight in the minutes before bed, or allow yourself slowness upon waking in the morning. Let yourself slip in and out of deeper states of consciousness, and see what harvests lie there.
In many ways sleep itself is a small death, as our consciousness escapes from the confines of daily life. So, too, is wintertime. When we engage with our roles as sleepwalkers in the dream state of wintertime, we can more fully enter the hypnagogic mind. Hypnagogia is a literal brain wave state, one that allows us to slip into deep stretches of meditation, inward exploration, and richly embroidered dreams. In wintertime we realize that we are, in truth, the dreamers of our own life. That we have the ability to create our own lives. In winter, we can dream our lives anew. To figure out, as Mary Oliver so eloquently posits, just what we would like to do with our “one wild and precious life.”
>> Pine (Pinus spp.) <<
Evergreens have been a symbol of sacred continuance as long as people have been living in the deciduous world. Emblems of eternal vitality and the possibility of life beyond death, evergreens like Pine show us that there is a flicker of consciousness that continues on even after the wide scale sleep of aboveground life. Evergreens are the master of sustaining. They remind us that we can live through anything, even death. Traditionally all evergreens were revered, but none so legendarily as the Pine.
Pine is a deeply versatile and abundant medicine. There are varieties of Pine in almost every corner of our world. The best way to begin to ID your local Pine is to count how many needles grow in a bundle. Here in our Western Appalachian forests we are dominated by Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), but you may be graced with Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) or Red Pine (Pinus resinosa). Our Eastern White Pine has five needles per fascicle (or bundle), but others will have a different count. This winter, treat yourself to a botany date with a tree ID book and introduce yourself to your neighborhood Pine variety.
Pine was an important medicine and resource for the people of this continent for as long as memory can reach. Traditionally the bark and sap was utilized as an important anodyne (pain reliever) and antiseptic. It was also a prized medicine for disinfecting wounds and staving off wintertime colds and flus. Boiled in a decoction, Pine bark was a foundational remedy for cold weather aches and rheumatism, as well as dispelling coughs and lung troubles.
Bright Pine needle tea is one of my wintertime treats. As an excellent source of vitamin C, Pine is an indispensable beverage for those who have little greenery to eat throughout the cold months. In the early days of the colonies, Indigenous peoples showed European settlers how to avoid scurvy by drinking an infusion of the needles throughout the long winter season. Just make sure to brew your batch of Pine tea with branches straight from the tree, as the vitamin C is best preserved in fresh needles.
Traditionally, every part of the Pine was used as a means of survival. When collected and distilled, Pine’s sap lends its volatile oils to create turpentine, an important solvent and cleaner in the early American colonies. Its rosin, the sticky byproduct of distillation, was often used in waterproof glues, sealing waxes, and to grip the strings of bowed instruments like fiddles to make them sing. Today, we can interact with this aspect of Pine’s medicine by collecting previously fallen sap droplets (a reminder that wounds are often our greatest source of medicine) and melt these antimicrobial gems over low heat on the woodstove or in a double burner to combine with salves or apply directly to the skin to heal fungal infections, burns and abrasions. Pine wood itself burns fast and bright. It is a choice log to begin any fire and often the first tinder to be thrown over the coals to get the hearth flaming anew.
Once upon a time there was a forest of Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) that ran the entire length of the south, 140,000 square miles, from Virginia to the edge of Texas. Over harvested to create pitch and to carve the masts for navy ships, today there are only a few patches of these mighty Pines left. But organizations like the Long Leaf Alliance are continuing to bear the torch of this majestic species, replanting forests and embodying the very essence of Pine itself. Life continues and regeneration is always possible, even in the face of seeming extinction.
As a living embodiment of everlasting life throughout the wintertime months, I like to spend time sitting and meditating with Pine to connect into the aspects of my own consciousness that continue on past the borderland of death. For centuries, Pine has been a gateway into the realm of the eternal, that dreamspace where all things continue and are created anew. This winter, try brewing yourself a cup of Pine needle tea before bedtime and see what dreams may come.
>> Pine Needle Tea <<
1 handful of fresh Pine needles (chopped)
1 quart H2O
Put your chopped needles into a large mason jar or French press. Bring your water to a boil and pour over the herb. Let steep (covered) for 20 minutes.
Press (or strain) and sip to revive and stay resilient throughout the long winter months!
// post originally published in Plant Healer Magazine, Winter 2016 //