(on darkness, winter, setting intentions, and a recipe for winter gin)
I listened to a podcast last week, in which physicist Lisa Randall was being interviewed about dark matter. A relatively newly discovered substance, dark matter is at the forefront of physics research. It moves through us as it moves through everything, and is responsible for making up the majority of the universe. Yet, it is completely invisible. Dark matter doesn’t interact with light, and because it doesn’t, we can’t see it. What it does can only be inferred by the gravitational pull it has on other objects around it, but it has a strong effect on the workings of the entire universe: without it, nothing would exist.
As I was listening, I started thinking about in their own way, our myths, planetary cycles and mysteries have all described this kind of thing already: that which cannot be seen but is nonetheless important. We don’t really hold on to our ancient myths as a means to keep ourselves connected with the cycles of nature anymore, but this delving into the invisible darkness in science gives me hope that we might somehow come back around to appreciating that which is hidden.
Because in society, we do tend to think of that which is not overt as unimportant: constitutional types that don’t fit the model for ‘normal’, winter, darkness, night. With each technological advancement we find more ways to replace natural cycles with something ‘better’: artificial lighting to get rid of the darkness; cars so that we don’t have to waste time walking; injections that stop us having periods; silicon fillers that make wrinkles magically disappear. Thinking about the dark that is hidden got me thinking about winter, and in turn, the Persephone myth.
Persephone, in Greek myth, is often painted as the passive figure in the story of her heading to the underworld. The assumption is that nobody would actually want to spend time in Hades, that nobody in their right mind would crave the darkness. I think, however, that the idea of an endless summer grows tiresome. Relentless heat, relentless sunlight, plants growing ever higher, up and up and up, a harvest that continues to be ripe and fragrant and beautiful and lush. Fruit always plump and young. The sun always at its zenith in the sky overhead, and that relentless sunlight beating down on our shoulders. Because Persephone was stolen from us, now we have to deal with this horrendous winter! But, really, the framing of this myth describes how we see our own personal winters too: as something that needs to be weathered and survived, like sleeping on a street corner, not something to be sunk into and relished (if this were the case I think Persephone would skip off to the underworld to see her sexy boyfriend).
Years ago, when sailing with my dad off the coast of Spain, we dropped anchor in a bay, and flung ourselves off the boat for a swim. I remember the moment with the clarity of its emotional impact: I looked down and realised I couldn’t see what was under the water, and I started to panic. Deep water is, on a fundamental human level, scary. A piece of seaweed brushes our legs while we’re swimming in it and in our minds it becomes sea creature, monster, shark. That which is unknown could be anything. no matter what horrors life can create, our imagination and fear response can do worse.
The energy of the earth moves from above the surface to below the surface, in a rhythm much like a sine wave: in the summer it is at its zenith; in the depths of winter, its nadir. At the same time, we have the cosine wave of the sun: at its highest point long before the energy of the earth is at its full buzzing glory; similarly, the solstice comes before the hardest of the winter hits.
Imagine if the zenith of earth energy and that of the sun were at the same time and place. Imagine if at its lowest point there was also little light. The sun, rising infinitely, would burn itself out in the sky like a supernova. The sinking, sinking drawing down, with nothing to pull it forwards and up, would implode upon itself, a black hole of inward motion. Nature is clever, however. When the sun is at its peak, the summer is not yet in full swing; when the sun is at its lowest, the coldest months are still to come. In the pregnant belly of the winter is an eye of light, a beacon of hope to draw us forward through the cold months.
The winter, with its stark emptiness can’t help but remind us of loss, lack of abundance. Deeper than that, with all that is going on below the surface, it reminds us, too, of that which is hidden. The moments before awareness, where everything is shifting and we don’t know what is there. The darkness, so prevalent in the cold months, in which things hide, secrets dwell. It is in this darkness that the unknown resides, and there are few things that we hate more than the unknown.
Except, in the hidden, under the surface of water or soil, our imagination flourishes. In the dark of night we dream, and when the nights are long, that dream extends into our waking hours. The darkness is rich with colour and movement, flickering beyond the light of candle or bonfire. In the darkness, stars glimmer, cold and distant, giving us a canvas on which to paint our mythologies. In the darkness, imperfection is masked: we cannot rely as much on our vision as we do our other senses, and naturally, we relax and expand into it, feeling our way through the night. And it is in the darkness of night that secrets are whispered, friendships made, bonds created, bodies joined together in sweaty momentum.
There is beauty in the winter: in the crisp of the frost, the stark branches outlined against the grey sky. There’s a clarity in the quiet, where nothing stirs but your unconscious. There’s a richness to the fallow times, when life is being created beneath the surface; Persephone has vanished back into the underworld; and the nourishment of leaves rot and become new earth. These nutrients are taken into storage, absorbing, absorbing, sucking in, like a sponge soaking in moisture, or like the dark earth soaking in the warmth of the winter sun. Beneath the surface, preparations are being made. Beneath the surface there is an underworld where Hades lords over that which cannot be seen and teaches us how to embrace the mystery and the fallow time if only we could listen.
It isn’t the overt sexiness of the summer, nor the excitement of the spring, or the russet glory of autumn’s last hurrah. No, this is the time of the stark and subtle, where the stillness on the surface masks the action underneath.
Roots are important; and directing our attention and energy down into the roots of ourselves and the earth is important. We don’t want the constant light because of our own needs but because we’ve somehow been convinced that without being productive we hold no value. But look at dark matter. Without it the universe couldn’t exist, and we know nothing of what it’s doing all day at its desk job. Were middle management in charge of dark matter, it’d be fired because it wasn’t productive enough, and then the universe would collapse. Look at the winter and what’s happening beneath the surface, and look at what happens to a world built on trying to stop these cycles: we’re all exhausted, burned out, ready to collapse. The earth itself is exhausted, depleted, yin deficient (hello, drought)— burning itself out like a runaway circuit in search of eternal summer and we let it because we want it to, all of us reaching towards the sun in hope that somehow we can shed the curse of the underworld and keep on moving eternally up into the light.
As the sun reaches its nadir, now is the time to root down and find that place in ourselves too— This winter time, when the cold grows colder still, and the earth energy is retreating, this is the time to nurture the spark of an intention, to incubate it so that when the earth’s energy turns up and out, it’s there and strong and ready to be birthed into existence. And it’s the time to nurture ourselves, to sink down into our deep roots, connect with that which grounds us and nurtures us, to have our own time of replenishing beneath the surface, embracing our own mystery and dark matter.
Do it with silence. Do it with quiet. Do it with self-care things like naps and baths and eating root vegetables. Do it with medicinal roots like osha, aralia, ashwagandha, sage root. Do it with long walks under the cold winter sky, or with the warmth of the fire warming your feet as you sip hot cocoa long into the night. Do it by taking a deep breath and turning to face the shadows, because in those shadows there is really nothing to be afraid of: only the darkness made of a thousand colours; only the cold; and if you find that place you’ll uncover that which holds up your entire universe.
When it comes to hidden things, I love to think about what layers lie within a simple recipe— what kind of time, ingredients, and effort are bound up in that which has, on the surface, a simple appearance. Two words like ‘winter’ and ‘gin’ say one thing but then you look at the ingredient list and realise its so much more. Woven into the recipe are elements of the winter— white fir, citrus, spices. In a way, it represent to me the complexity of winter itself— one thing on the surface, and quite another underneath. The recipe is from my friend Emily’s new book, Wild Drinks and Cocktails
(we’re using it in this recipe for our Christmas party, subbing white fir syrup for the rosemary)
Winter Gin From Wild Drinks and Cocktails by Emily Han
2 tb (10g) juniper berries 1 750ml bottle vodka 2 tb coriander seeds 1 tsp dried, cut and sifted orange peel 3 inch sprig white fir 1 inch cinnamon stick 1 whole allspice berry 1 dried sage leaf 1/2 dried california bay leaf or 1 dried regular bay leaf, torn into pieces
Put the juniper berries in a quart jar and cover with the vodka. Screw on the lid and let it sit for 12 hours. After 12 hours, add the rest of the ingredients, cap the jar, and let it sit for 36 hours.
Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer lined with a coffee filter or cheesecloth to remove all the bits, then discard the solids. Bottle and store in a cool dark place, for up to a year.