Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Sunset Awe

There is a place on the east side of the Mississippi River north of Saint Cloud, Minnesota where winter sunsets put you in touch with awe. Scrub oak sunsets. Prairie sunsets. There are bigger, gaudier, more lurid sunsets around the world, but what these Central Minnesota winter sunsets lack in spectacle they more than make up for in simple spiritual substance.

You stand in a pasture, daylight beginning to fail all around, a subtler, more graduated light coming on. You quiet your heart and all but feel the planet rotating. Stars begin to come out overhead. Vastness insinuates itself and you begin to sense long, slow cycles of time hidden and interwoven, layer on layer, eon on eon, millennia and centuries and generations and decades and years and seasons and days and minutes, right up to this particular sunset, one of billions that have taken place or have yet to take place here on this spot.

You tune out the cars and trucks hurrying past on the highway and tune in other comings and goings. Glaciers and forests and peoples and species—even the great river itself.

Time on the human scale recedes, Awe arrives and, with it, (if you’re lucky), a certain humility and circumspection. You begin to get the idea that maybe you aren’t as big or important as you had thought. Maybe you’re just one little flicker of life on a small planet spinning on its axis, circling a lesser star in a galaxy of a billion stars, the galaxy itself just one of two hundred-billion galaxies in the universe.

You let the awe percolate, treading lightly as you do. You try not to think too hard, lest the awe fade and you find you’ve snapped yourself back inside human time—impatient time—time that taps it’s toe, looks at its watch and asks what’s next. Time that kills awe.

You try to stay humble, circumspect, and in the moment, even though your mind wants to prattle on like an apostle speaking in tongues after an epiphany. You do your best to ignore it. It quiets down eventually and settles back into the awe itself.

This awe seems to serve an ancient winter purpose—to fatten the spirit for a kind of hibernation; to slow us down and put us in touch once again with all the ancient riddles and mysteries,

This time of year, we seem to be almost genetically compelled to go out, gather awe, bring it in and stockpile it like food or firewood and mete it out slowly and deliberately—to make it last until spring.

All our seasonal stories, rituals, and traditions seem to have been born of this awe; to have been passed down to us in it; to have been created in order to perpetuate it.

We have been telling these awe stories in order to explain the cold and darkness away, and to frame our ancient riddles and mysteries for tens of thousands of years.

Even today, awash in science and mathematics, having answered many of the old questions and solved many of the riddles and mysteries, it seems all our theories, equations, and discoveries lead us back to the same place—to a crossroads in the dark where all the arrows on the signpost point the same direction: Awe.

It’s late afternoon as I finish this. Another hour and it will begin to get dark. I won’t make it to North Central Minnesota for sunset. Not today. Luckily, I seem to have stashed enough winter sunset awe away for this evening. Here’s hoping you’ve got some set aside too.