• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 22, 2000

Air Date: December 22, 2000

SEGMENTS

Nature's Myths

Host Steve Curwood shares two of his favorite stories fom “The World’s Great Nature Myths” by Gary Ferguson. (04:59)

Holiday Show, Part I / Dovie Thomason

Living On Earth celebrates the winter solstice with stories of hibernation. Author Rick Bass, storyteller Dovie Thomason and Fiona Ritchie, host of the Celtic music program The Thistle and Shamrock, join host Steve Curwood to tell tales of winter’s wind and ice. In this segment, Dovie Thomason spins a yarn about the clash between the North and South winds. (17:55)

Holiday Show, Part II / Fiona Richie

Living On Earth’s holiday show continues with storytellers Rick Bass, Dovie Thomason and Fiona Ritchie. In this segment, The Thistle and Shamrock host Fiona Ritchie reads a tale of trows – creatures of winter and the underworld – written by author George MacKay Brown. (10:03)

Holiday Show, Part III / Rick Bass

– In the final segment of Living On Earth’s holiday show, author Rick Bass shares a story from his own collection, of a hidden world beneath the ice. (23:00)

Dovie Thomason's Other Story

-->

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
STORYTELLERS: Dovie Thomason, Fiona Ritchie, Rick Bass

FIRST HALF HOUR

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

THOMASON: The north wind said, "He may find her, but each day when he rests I will come in the dark, and I will freeze her again beneath her robe. If I do not have her, none will have her."

CURWOOD: This week it's the underworld in winter. Storyteller Dovie Thomason, the Thistle and Shamrock host Fiona Ritchie, and author Rick Bass join us for stories from the frozen underground.

BASS: Ann said she could barely see Gray Owl's outline through the swirling snow. He kicked once at the sheet of ice, the vast plate of it, with his heel, then disappeared below the ice.

RITCHIE: The trows belonged to the underworld. If the children were not protected, it was easy for the trows to steal them.

CURWOOD: Throw another log on the fire and stay tuned for tales of hibernation, and what you don't see in winter, on the annual Winter solstice storytelling special from Living on Earth.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Nature's Myths

CURWOOD: Before we meet our guests, I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite stories out of Gary Ferguson's book The World's Great Nature Myths, published by Falcon Press. In the warmer parts of the world, of course, there is no winter, and in the tropics no shortest day. People there tend to celebrate the return of the light every day. While these cultures may not consider hibernation, they certainly do enjoy its short form, a good night's sleep. So let's start now with a tale from central India. Sleep, it seems, comes from flowers.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Did you know that when people first came to live in the world, they didn't know the simple pleasure of sleep? They worked, and then they worked some more, even on dark nights when there was no moon to light their toils. This greatly disturbed the guiding spirit, Nanga Baiga, who was wise enough to know that everything in heaven and on earth needed rest. But how to give slumber to humans? Finally, one morning in early October, Nanga Baiga decided to sprinkle a secret potion on the blooms of the aconite flowers. Whenever the wind blew, it carried the potion across the countryside and into the eyes of people, causing them to fall into a deep, untroubled sleep. The only problem was that the aconite flowers couldn't hold all that much of the mixture. In a month it was gone, and the people were right back to their restless ways. The solution, Nanga Baiga decided, was to make sleep come from a different flower every month.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And so it is today. Each month has a special flower that puts people to sleep. My favorite is the mango in April. Thus, it's thanks to Nanga Baiga and of course all these beautiful flowers that the people find rest in all seasons.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: But what if we didn't even have night at all? Indeed, that is where this folk tale from Brazil begins. It's called "The Coming of Night."

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: At the beginning of the world there was no such thing as night. The face of the sun was always full on the land, never rising and never setting, cloaking stars and moon alike. It was in these days that the lovely daughter of the Great Sea Serpent happened to fall in love with a human. In time they married. The daughter bid farewell to her ocean home and went to live with her husband under the bright sun. Though she was very much in love, living under the bright light of day was overwhelming to a being used to the shadow of the sea. Soon she grew withdrawn, despondent.

"There's something in my father's kingdom we call night," she told her worried husband. "It's a soothing darkness, a fabric woven out of heavy shadows, under which you can rest your eyes. Where you can sleep without burden. If only I could have a little night."

On hearing this, the husband summoned three of his most trustworthy servants. "I have urgent business for you," he told them. "You must travel to the kingdom of the Great Sea Serpent and tell him that his daughter is in dire need of darkness. Tell him that she may die here if she can't gain a slice of night." And off they ran to the sea.

On hearing this troubling news, the Great Sea Serpent hurried off into the shadows to fill a bag with night, sealed it tight, and then gave it to the servants. "Remember one thing," he told the three men. "Whatever you do, don't open this bag until you reach my daughter." This sounds like a simple enough task. True, the bag was heavy, but these were strong men, used to carrying such weight on their heads for miles at a time.

But there were strange sounds coming from that bag full of night. The piercing cries of night birds and the drone of insects. A chorus of hoots and howls unlike anything they'd ever heard. And soon, curiosity overcame them.

So they laid the bag on the ground and broke the serpent's wax seal. In a wink, all the birds and bugs and beasts spilled out, wrapped in a huge cloud of night.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Back in the village, Sea Serpent's daughter sat under a royal palm tree, waiting for the servants' return. Shortly after the bag was opened, she happened to raise her tired eyes and see the mist of night gathering on the horizon. With a happy sigh she laid down under the palm and fell into a blissful sleep.

She woke in that time between darkness and dawn, healthy, filled with joy, a princess again. As she walked, she spoke to those things that would become key players in the hours between dusk and morning. She told the rooster it would be his job to keep watch and call out at the approach of day. Likewise she spoke to the star we know as Morning Star, giving it her blessing to rule the sky just before dawn. So many birds she commanded to sing the finest songs in those magic hours.

It's thanks to night spilling out at the hands of those servants that in Brazil, darkness rolls quickly over the earth. It's because of them that the creatures of the night break into a loud chorus at the first sign of the setting sun.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our storytelling special, The Underworld in Winter, continues in just a moment, with Rick Bass, Fiona Ritchie, and Dovie Thomason.

(Music up and under)

Holiday Show, Part I

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Today we celebrate the solstice with stories of the underworld in winter. Joining us are author Rick Bass, storyteller Dovie Thomason, and Fiona Ritchie, host of NPR's The Thistle and Shamrock. We're sharing tales of hibernation, or what lives beneath the surface when the earth freezes over in the winter. Dovie, let's start with you.

THOMASON: The story I wanted to tell for everybody is a story from the Lakota side of my family, northern plains. Cold country, at least part of the year. And it's a small piece of a story that takes more days to tell than we have, but it's perhaps my favorite part.

(Music up and under)

THOMASON: The North Wind, the West Wind, the East Wind, and the South Wind were brothers living together. In that long-ago time they lived far in the north, in the ghost country. And with them lived their younger brother, bare more than a babe, the Whirlwind.

Now, the North Wind was cold and hard and often cruel. His brother, the West Wind, well, he was strong and noisy and loud. The East Wind -- ah, lazy. Lazy and good for nothing. But the South Wind -- oh, he was kind. And he was generous and always pleasant.

The Whirlwind -- the Whirlwind, he loved to play. He frolicked. He spun. He delighted his brothers. And that was his place on earth. His brother the North Wind -- oh, he delighted in killing. Though all the brothers hunted, only that one delighted in killing.

The West Wind -- well, he found his delight in helping, most often, his brother the South Wind, but sometimes his brother the North. Beyond that, he delighted in loud noise, drumming, singing, and dancing with his baby brother.

The East Wind found delight only in complaining, sometimes yawning, sighing. He was lazy and found no purpose in his life.

The South Wind's delight was delighting others, and in making things.

And so these five lived together in their tipi. And one day as they traveled on the earth, they saw in the sky a bright light coming closer, ever closer. They stopped and stared at that light, growing nearer and nearer. And in that light they saw all the colors of the earth. And before their eyes that light took shape. And they saw it was a star, but it was a star become Woman, and she stepped onto the earth.

She was beautiful. Her gown was white. Around her wrapped a buffalo robe covered with the finest quill-work. Detail so fine and in every color that could be imagined. Her face was radiant, and they smiled on her.

The Whirlwind spun up to her. "I have found a sister!" he cried. "I have found a sister!" But in truth, the other four brothers were not thinking of a sister when they looked on her face. But they saw that she was helpless and newly come to this place. And so they invited her to their tipi.

Now, when she got to their tipi, she saw that it was a plain enough place. It is easy to imagine such a place, a place where five men live. And so she quickly made herself of use to them, showing her respect and gratitude for their kindness. The leather she tanned was smoky, soft, and white. The quill-work she put on it was as fine as that she wore herself. The foods tasted delightful, scents and flavors unfamiliar in that lodge, now that the woman had come from the stars.

She kept the fire burning. She kept the talk pleasant. And the men were delighted with her, each of them in his own way and each of them wanting her for wife.

And so, the North Wind said to her, "I am big and strong. I have power, power I might share with you. All fear me, for my might is right. You will be my woman."

Now, wordy war began between the brothers, for the West Wind would not be silent. And he had the power of noise.

"I will have you for mine. Everyone likes me. What is not to like about me? Right is right, wrong is wrong, wrong is right, right is wrong. It does not matter to me. Be my wife."

The East Wind looked up at her. He was indolent and slow-moving. "Aah, well -- you would be mine, so long as you do not bother me. Now I do not like to be bothered early in the morning. If I am, my wrath is strong. I like a walk in the evening. Other than that, my yoke is not heavy to bear. (Yawns) Be my wife."

Only the South Wind did not speak. He looked from brother to brother and then he alone looked into the eyes of that Star Woman. And then he spoke, but not of himself. It was silent and his words dropped into that silence. "I think -- I think you should find what pleases you in one of us. I think you should choose that which pleases you, that which only you would know."

And that which pleased her was what she had heard. And that which pleased him was the smile on her face, as she turned toward him as radiant as her Star People. "I will be your woman," she said.

And so it was. And for a time she lived there with the brothers and now her husband. But the North Wind could not abide not having his way. The North Wind said, "You will see a challenge. This decision will not stand. I will hunt. I will show you what I can do." And he went out and he hunted and he killed and he killed and he killed.

He brought in piles of meat. He laid that meat in heaps at her feet. And as he came into the lodge with his death and killing, all turned to darkness and cold and ice.

The West Wind said, "Perhaps you would reconsider, then. I -- I sing well." And he took out his drum and he began to bang on his drum. Beating and thumping like thunder that drum rang out in that small tipi, until the very pole shook. And it seemed as though the lodge would come down on her head. Her head ached from the sound of him.

The East Wind said, "It is difficult being me. Oh, it is a hard life that I have." And he moaned and complained until she thought she would cry, he was so tiresome.

She turned to the South Wind, her husband, and said, "Nothing has changed my mind. I think we must be away from this place. Cold feelings live here now, in the hearts of your brothers."

It was not in the hearts of his brothers, but only the North Wind, South Wind knew. And so, he took his wife and headed into the south country. Now, the West Wind would come to visit and the Whirlwind would come to visit. The West Wind, where he lived still with the North. The East lived with the North because, well, now it was quiet with his brother and his wife gone, and (yawns) "None bother me."

But as they headed into the south, on that first night the North Wind crept behind them. South Wind was out gathering fire for the wood, for the lodge he had put up for his wife. And in his absence the North Wind came. She heard him cruel and howling behind her. And she knew she must protect herself. And so she took off her buffalo robe and shook it. She spread it out on the earth, crawling beneath it where she would be safe. She pressed her flesh to the warm earth. "The Mother herself will protect me," she thought. "He will not see me under this robe."

But he saw the robe and recognized it. Recognized it for all the colors that seemed to emerge out of it. But when he touched that robe as if to lift it, it froze hard in his hand. All died under his touch. The quills dulled, became brittle, and fell away like dust. She felt his touch above her. She pressed herself deeper and deeper into the strength and power of our Mother. Pulling deeper and deeper from that mystery and that knowing, she now knew how to protect herself.

She sent that robe in every direction. As the North Wind lifted an edge of that robe, she pulled it and stretched it further and further away. He would move to another place and she would stretch it further and further away. In every direction she stretched that robe till it had no edge. It had no end.

The North Wind raged, walking above her on that robe. Beneath his feet all was ice. Far below, the Woman listened as he walked, his footsteps like drum beats above her head. But she listened to that older beat, the heartbeat beneath her. The beat that beat within her. And she pushed that robe further out. And she prayed for her husband to return.

North Wind heard him. He felt the warm breeze of him and was gone to the north before South Wind returned. When South Wind saw his wife's robe, he knew immediately something had happened, but he did not imagine she was deep in the earth beneath it. He touched the robe and felt it cold under his hand. He saw the beauty of her work destroyed, and knew it was his brother that had killed the things of this robe. He wept, first with grief and loss, and then with rage. And he turned and he went to the north, and there he found his brother the North Wind boasting to his brothers of his power and what he had done. "If I do not have her, nor will he. He may find her, but each day, when he rests, I will come in the dark and I will freeze her again beneath her robe. If I do not have her, none will have her."

And soon South Wind and North Wind were flying about that lodge, fighting and screaming and howling, causing great hurt to each other. South Wind was about to lose, when West Wind saw he must help his brother. He jumped into the fight, and with the power of the West Wind, with his brother, those two were able to subdue and bind the North Wind into that lodge.

East Wind looked at them and said, "(Yawns) You all disturb me. I want none of any of you. I am going to that place where the sun comes up each day. (Yawns) It will not disturb me. I will walk in the evening, for early it will be dark in that eastern place." And he was gone.

The West Wind said, "I will not be near this brother, of whom I disapprove. My brother, I will hear you should you need me. Call for me. But I am going to the west, where the sun sets each day. There I will watch its brilliant colors. They are loud in my eyes, those colors. I will like that place."

And the South Wind went in the opposite direction from the one who had once been his brother. He went in the opposite direction and as far as he could from the one he had once loved. There he and his star wife were well each day. But in the night it seems that the North Wind could break free of his bonds. The South Wind went to the north and tied him tighter still into his lodge. But he could not kill him. He could not destroy him. For not only was he an immortal, one of the very winds from the first creation times, he was still his brother. "I will tie you each day if I must. You will not loose this killing fury on the earth."

And so he would go. And there in that place, under that robe still, he spoke to the wife he could no longer see. The wife he knew was there. The wife who was represented and concealed and protected by the Great Mother Earth herself. She spoke to him, but not in words he could see. As his steps and his love and his very tears warmed that frozen robe, in each warm place she sent up colors. The blues. The crimsons. The oranges, greens, yellows, palest colors, most brilliant colors. And as he saw those colors, his heart near broke with the missing of her.

And each morning, when he wakened, the North had come again and those colors were killed and gone. And he would kneel and he would cry, and he would pray and he would send his love into that robe. And as he cried, the colors would return. So it went each day, each day. Until the South Wind knew he could not bear this.

And so he went to his brother the West Wind and said, "You must come and help me bind him well. Help me bind him strong. Help me bind him in that place so he cannot walk the earth each night."

And so the West Wind helped. The East came not to help but to watch, perhaps to take the side of whoever won. But the West and the South subdued the North. And he was tied and remains tied long times in each passage of the moons. And in those long times, lesser is the distance between the South Wind and his bride beneath the earth. And the colors cover the earth.

Oh, but he has a power, the North, a power that is immortal. Never dying, ever growing. And each day it grows until his power is so fierce, it breaks the bonds and then he comes into the south. And then that robe stretches out again, as if to protect the woman, perhaps to protect the Earth which protected her. And yet all is killed. All turns frozen and cold. And yet the tears, the prayers, the love, the hope, reaches deep to those hidden places. And the colors, all the colors, always return.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Dovie. Rick Bass?

BASS: A lovely story. Thank you so much for telling it. I guess it's almost like that Gaia Theory that everything is for a reason, and the balance and counterbalance that one thing is just going to summon the other.

THOMASON: Mm hm. Mm hm.

BASS: It was really interesting that we're in the studio, and there are some cats in the back room. But when you were reading about the South Wind and the North Wind fighting and swirling around, the cats got all agitated and were clawing at the door and stuff. (Thomason and Curwood laugh) A little spooky. But it was wonderful. Thank you.

RITCHIE: It's a great gift to receive, and especially at a time of year like this. And I just enjoy how it opens up our senses to the supernatural qualities of the world around us, and the sense that there are many forces beyond our control. And that things have been as they are for way out of our memory, back through inherited memory, and will be so. And our sense that we can control and harness the world when we are here in our time starts to get brushed aside when we hear some of these tales. It was nice, also, just as I was hearing the story, a melody started to hum in my mind. And it's called The South Wind.

Back to top

(A man sings to guitar: "From south I come with velvet breeze. My word on nature blesses. I melting snow and strew these with flowers and soft caresses. I'll help you to dispel your woes. With joy I'll take your greeting. And bear it to your loved muir [phonetic spelling] upon my wind...")

CURWOOD: We'll be back in just a minute with Fiona Ritchie, Rick Bass, and Dovie Thomason, as our solstice storytelling special, The Underworld in Winter, continues. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Holiday Show, Part II

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And welcome back as we celebrate the solstice with Rick Bass, Fiona Ritchie, and Dovie Thomason. We just heard Dovie tell the story of the battle between the North and South Winds. Dovie, I'm wondering, do you tell the story the same way every time?

THOMASON: No, goodness no. When I first began telling stories, I think I tried very hard to be meticulous and precise. I think that can become an academic or archaeological way of looking at culture, you know. And it's not just that we're here because we're preserved so much, but we're here because we are living these things. And we're repeating these things. And so, I shape them and they shape me, and so it always comes out a bit different.

CURWOOD: The story happens, huh?

THOMASON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: It happens.

RITCHIE: So many parallels with the traditional music and storytelling over here. Oh yeah. I mean, what you said about a living tradition, I mean that's so important, that traditional music or storytelling not be something that sort of sits in a glass case, and we take it out, and we treat it very preciously. But something that's worn all the time and that gets kind of tatty, and, you know, used. And has a sense that each generation picks these things up and handles them and works with them and makes of them what they will and passes them on. I mean, I love that, and I think it's vital. I think that as soon as something becomes, as you say, only academic, then it's kind of dead.

CURWOOD: What were your first thoughts when you heard that Living on Earth was thinking about stories on hibernation?

RITCHIE: Well, I love the winter. And I like northern places, and I like the things that happen in winter and the things that don't happen in winter. (Laughs) So, those were some of the thoughts that came to mind, and it made me want to look for a piece of writing to read for you, which gave a sense of harnessed energy. The sense of a hidden world and a hidden life and something lying in wait for the turn of the season.

In the northern islands, December is a dark month. The lamps are burning when people go to their work. Light thickens again in the early afternoon. The weather, more often than not, is cold and stormy. There are also calm, clear nights, when the hemisphere of sky is hung with stars. And in the north, the aurora borealis rustles like curtains of heavy yellow silk.

It is the season of the Nativity. It is also the time of trows. To the islanders, the earth they tilled was an element of dark, dangerous, contending energies. The good energy of the earth raised their crops into the sun and rain and wind. But there were other earth energies bent on famine, sickness, death. These energies were active always. Especially in the dark, cold time of the year when nothing grew, the earth seemed to belong to them entirely.

The island farmers knew this evil brood as trows. And the trows were more than vague, abstract energies. They had shape and substance. They could dance. They could speak. They could travel between the hill and the plowed field. They were often seen, but only by people who had the gift.

The trows belonged to the underworld, to the kingdom of night. Hideous shapes they represented, all the curses of unredeemed nature. The best way to contain the kingdom of winter and death was to lead a decent life. For the trows were, among other things, embodiments of the seven deadly sins. And it was best to observe duly the rituals of Christianity, as well as other rituals that were old when the megalithic people built the stones at Brodgar.

The corn and animals had to be protected. The trows grew strong and bold in winter in proportion, as the creatures of light paled and dwindled. Straws in the form of a cross were fixed to the lintels of barn and byre, so these places were sained, made holy. The most precious creatures in a croft and the most liable to corruption were the children. A special care was taken of them on Helya's Night, the twentieth of December. In Shetland, the old grandmother went round each bed and cradle and committed the young ones to the care of the Virgin Mary. "Mary Midder had de haund/Ower aboot for sleeping-baund,/Had da lass and had da wife,/Had da bairn all its life./Mary Midder had de haund,/Round da infants o'oor laund."

If the children were not protected, it was easy for the trows to steal them. What happened was this: The trows left their own offspring in the cradle, and these winter children generally grew up sick and deformed. So the people say of someone who looks permanently ill that he is trowie.

December the twenty-fourth was a night specially holy and terrible. The trows, in dark hordes, lingered outside every croft. The terror of darkness was held in check by a strictly-observed ritual. The mother brought out a basin and filled it with water. The man of the house, priest-like, took three live embers from the fire and dropped them in the water. So in midwinter, the elements of fire and water were true to the tryst of purification.

In this condensed drama, all nature, light and darkness, the four elements, plant and beast and man, were seen as part of a divine festival. The creatures of nature kept their trysts in season. They could not behave otherwise. Man, with his scattered and distracted energies, the flesh tugging forever against the spirit, moving between the trow-infested earth and the angel-fretted sky, proclaimed his allegiance to the kingdom of light in the form of a willed and strictly observed ritual. One by one, each member of the family washed himself all over in the fire-kissed water and put on clean clothes. The rooms had been swept already. Everything dirty had been bundled away. The dishes and the dresser glinted in the lamplight. The children were put to bed.

Midnight was approaching. The other members of the family retired, one by one, until only the parents were left. They made then an act of great faith. Though the night outside was thick with trows, they unfastened the door and left the lamp burning, and went to bed. It was possible that Our Lady and St. Joseph with their as-yet-hidden treasure would come to their croft that night seeking shelter.

Early on Christmas morning, the man of the house rose before daybreak while the others were still asleep. He lit a candle in the skull of a cow, carefully fixing it in the eye socket. He went into the byre, carrying this lantern. He fed the beasts by its light, giving them more to eat than usual. It was a re-enaction of the scene in the byre at Bethlehem. The animals had also been present at Christ's nativity. The flame in the skull was a reminder to them that they shared both in mortality and, in this blessed time, the kindling of the one true light in the world's darkness. There was nothing to be afraid of now. The trows had returned to their burrows, defeated. Christ was born among the fields.

The children were awake when the crofter came back. They had a small candle each, that they lit and set here and there about the room. The crofter filled a bowl with whiskey. Quintessence of earth's ripeness, the heavy rich blood of summer. Solemnly he carried the bowl to each person in turn. Even the children had to wet their lips. The bread lay on the table -- not the course, everyday bannock but Yule-brunnies, little round yellow cakes of rye and fat, pinched at the edges to represent the sun's rays. A Yule-brunnie for everyone in the house.

The Christmas breakfast was a festival of candlelight. The eating of the cakes was a kind of pre-Christian, non-sacramental communion. In the heart of winter, they devoured the sun, and so filled their days with light and gaiety and fruitfulness.

THOMASON: Well, I feel completely unsurprised that so many Scot-Irish people came over here and married my people. (Laughs) The stories are just - there's just pieces of them, they feel so familiar. The coming together of the elements and the care of fire, and renewal and putting out fire and bringing in water. And all of those ceremonial and seasonal things that happened in the northeast at midwinter where, you know, we think of the spirits and the space between this world and the spirit world and the thinning of it.

BASS: You know, literally we are walking somewhat above the earth in winter. And maybe that's part of that primal impulse or affinity we have toward the notion of hibernating that, you know, when you've got six feet of snow on the ground, you're that far above the place you used to be before the snow came. And maybe on some level that makes us miss where we were before the snow came. I grew up in the south, but that's one of the things I love most about being up here in northern Montana, is the four seasons. It's like Dovie's story -- each time she tells it, it's not the same. And no season, no winter, no spring, is ever like another previous season, another previous winter or spring. But they all have the same elements and the same tones and stories.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We'll be right back with more of our solstice storytelling special, The Underworld in Winter, in just a minute. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Holiday Show, Part III

CURWOOD: Welcome back. It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This week we're celebrating the solstice with Rick Bass, Dovie Thomason, and Fiona Ritchie. They join us from as far away as Montana and Scotland. The theme is hibernation. Rick, do you have a story for us today?

BASS: It's called The Hermit's Story. And this section I'm going to read starts up with this bird dog trainer named Ann, who is just this genius trainer. And people send her their dogs to train for bird hunting. And she'll keep the dogs for half a year or a year and then take them back to their owners and show the owners how to work their dogs once she's brought out their fuller potential. And in this section she has six German shorthaired pointers that she's been training for a client named Gray Owl, who lives up in Canada.

So they're out there and have run out of daylight chasing these quail all over the place that they're practicing training their dogs on, and all they have is a little day pack with a tent and a little gas stove and not much else.

The temperature was dropping as the north wind increased. "No question about which way south is," Gray Owl said. "We'll turn around and walk south for three hours, and if we don't find a road we'll make camp."

They came in day's last light to the edge of a wide clearing, a terrain that was remarkable and soothing for its lack of hills. It was a frozen lake, which meant, said Gray Owl, that they had drifted west, or perhaps east, by as much as ten miles.

Ann said that Gray Owl looked tired and old and guilty, as would any host who had caused his guests some unasked-for inconvenience. They knelt down and began massaging the dogs' paws and then lit the little stove, and held each dog's foot, one at a time, over the tiny blue flame to help it thaw out.

Gray Owl walked out to the edge of the lake ice and kicked at it with his foot, hoping to find fresh water beneath for the dogs. If they ate too much snow, especially after working so hard, they'd get violent diarrhea and might then become too weak to continue home the next day, or the next, or whenever the storm quit.

Ann said she could barely see Gray Owl's outline through the swirling snow, even though he was less than 20 yards away. He kicked once at the sheet of ice, the vast plate of it with his heel, then disappeared below the ice.

Ann wanted to believe that she had blinked and lost sight of him, or that a gust of snow had swept past and hidden him. But it had been too fast, too total. She knew that the lake had swallowed him. She was sorry for Gray Owl, she said, and worried for his dogs. Afraid they would try to follow his scent down into the icy lake and be lost as well. But what she was most upset about, she said, to be perfectly honest, was that Gray Owl had been wearing the little day pack with the tent and emergency rations.

She had it in her mind to try to save Gray Owl, and to try to keep the dogs from going through the ice. But if he drowned, she was going to have to figure out how to try to get that day pack off of the drowned man and set up the wet tent in a blizzard on the snowy prairie, and then crawl inside and survive. She would have to go into the water naked, so that when she came back out -- if she came back out -- she would have dry clothes to put on.

The dogs came galloping up, seeming as large as deer or elk in that dim landscape against which there was nothing else to give the viewer a perspective. And Ann whoaed them right at the lake's edge, where they stopped immediately, as if they had suddenly been cast with a sheet of ice.

Ann knew the dogs would stay there forever, or until she released them. And it troubled her to think that if she drowned, they too would die. That they would stand there motionless as she had commanded them, for as long as they could, until at some point, days later perhaps, they would lie down, trembling with exhaustion. They might lick at some snow for moisture. But that then the snows would cover them, and still they would remain there, chins resting on their front paws, staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm, wondering where the scent of her had gone.

Ann eased out onto the ice. She followed the tracks until she came to the jagged hole in the ice through which Gray Owl had plunged. She was almost half again lighter than he, but she could feel the ice crackling beneath her own feet. It sounded different, too, in a way she could not place. It did not have the squeaky, percussive resonance of the lake ice back home. And she wondered if Canadian ice froze differently or just sounded different.

She got down on all fours and crept closer to the hole. It was right at dusk. She peered down into the hole and dimly saw Gray Owl standing down there, waving his arms at her. He did not appear to be swimming. Slowly she took off one glove and eased her bare hand down into the hole. She could find no water, and tentatively she reached deeper.

Gray Owl's hand found hers and he pulled her down in. Ice broke as she fell but he caught her in his arms. She could smell the wood smoke in his jacket from the alder he burned in his cabin. There was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.

"This happens a lot more than people realize," he said. "It's not really a phenomenon, it's just what happens. A cold snap comes in October, freezes a skin of ice over the lake. It's got to be a shallow one, almost a marsh. Then a snowfall comes, insulating the ice. The lake drains in fall and winter, percolates down through the soil." He stamped the spongy ground beneath him. "But the ice up top remains, and nobody every knows any differently. People look out at the surface and think: Aha, a frozen lake." Gray Owl laughed. "Did you know it would be like this?" Ann asked. "No," he said. "I was looking for water. I just got lucky."

Ann walked back to shore beneath the ice to fetch her stove and to release the dogs from their whoa command. The dry lake was only about eight feet deep, but it grew shallow quickly closer to shore, so that Ann had to crouch to keep from bumping her head on the overhead ice, and then crawl. And then there was only space to wriggle, and to emerge she had to break the ice above her by bumping and then battering it with her head and elbows, like the struggles of some embryonic hatchling. And when she stood up, waist deep amid sparkling shards of ice, it was nighttime now. The dogs barked ferociously at her but remained where she had ordered them to stay. And she was surprised at how far off course she was when she had climbed out. She had traveled only 20 feet, but already the dogs were twice that far away from her.

She knew humans had a poorly-evolved, almost nonexistent sense of direction, but this error, over such a short distance, shocked her. It was as if there were in us a thing, an impulse, a catalyst, that denies our ever going straight to another thing. Like dogs working left and right into the wind, she thought, before converging on the scent.

Except that the dogs would not get lost, while she could easily imagine herself and Gray Owl getting lost beneath the lake, walking in circles forever, unable to find even the simplest of things: the shore.

She gathered the stove and dogs. She was tempted to try to go back in the way she had come out; it seemed so easy. But considered the consequences of getting lost in the other direction, and instead followed her original tracks out to where Gray Owl had first dropped through the ice. It was true night now, and a blizzard was still blowing hard, plastering snow and ice around her face like a mask.

The dogs did not want to go down into the hole, so she lowered them to Gray Owl and then climbed gratefully back down into the warmth herself. The air was a thing of its own, recognizable as air, and breathable as such, but with a taste and odor, an essence unlike any other air they'd ever breathed. It had a different density to it, so that smaller, shallower breaths were required. There was very much the feeling that if they breathed in too much of the strange, dense air, they would drown.

They wanted to explore the lake and were thirsty, but it felt like a victory simply to be warm -- or, rather, not cold. And they were so exhausted that instead they made pallets out of the dead marsh grass that rustled around their ankles. And they slept curled up on the tiniest of hammocks to keep from getting damp in the pockets and puddles of dampness that still lingered here and there.

All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across others' ribs and hips. And it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she'd ever had. The sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood. And how long they slept, she never knew, for she wasn't sure later how much of their subsequent time they spent wandering beneath the lake and then up on the prairie, homeward again. But when they awoke it was still night, or night once more. And clearing with bright stars visible through their porthole, their point of embarkation. And even from beneath the ice, in certain places where, for whatever reasons, temperature, oxygen content, wind scour, the ice was clear rather than glazed, they could see the spangling of stars, though more dimly. And strangely, rather than seeming to distance them from the stars, this phenomenon seemed to pull them closer, as if they were up in the stars traveling the Milky Way, or as if the stars were embedded in the ice.

It was very cold outside, up above, and there was a steady stream, a current like a river, of the night's colder, heavier air plunging down through their porthole, as if trying to fill the empty lake with that frozen air. But there was also the hot muck of the earth's massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current. The result was that it was breezy down there, and the dogs' noses twitched in their sleep as the images brought by these scents painted themselves across their sleeping brains, in the language we call dreams but which, for the dogs, was reality. The scent of an owl real, not a dream. The scent of bear, cattail, willow, loon, real, even though they were sleeping, and even though those things were not visible, only over the next horizon.

The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great cold. A concussive, grinding sound, as if giant were walking across the ice above. And it was this sound that had awakened them. They snuggled in warmer among the rattly, dried, yellowing grasses, and listened to the tremendous clashings, as if they were safe beneath the sea and were watching waves of starlight sweeping across their hiding place. Or as if they were in some place, some position, where they could watch mountains being born.

After a while the moon came up and washed out the stars. The light was blue and silver and seemed, Ann said, to be like a living thing. It filled the sheet of ice just above their heads with a shimmering, cobalt light, which again rippled as if the ice were moving. And like deer drawn by gravity, getting up in the night to feed for an hour or so before settling back in, Gray Owl and Ann and the dogs rose from their nest of straw and began to travel.

They walked a long way, Ann said. The air was damp down there, and whenever they'd get chilled they'd stop and make a little fire out of a bundle of dried cattails. There were little pockets of swamp gas pooled in places, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those. And those little pockets of gas would light up like when you tossed gas on a fire. Explosions of brilliance like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch until a large enough flash pocket was reached, sometimes 30 or 40 yards away. That the puff of flame would blow a chimney hole through the ice, venting the other pockets. And the fires would crackle out, the scent of grass smoke sweet in their lungs. And they could feel gusts of warmth from the little flickering fires, and currents of the colder, heavier air sliding down through the new vent holes and pooling around their ankles.

The moonlight would strafe down through those rents in the ice, and shards of moon ice would be glittering and spinning like diamond moats in those newly-vented columns of moonlight. And they pushed on, still lost, but so alive.

The small explosions were fun, but they frightened the dogs. And so Ann and Gray Owl lit twisted bundles of cattails and used them for torches to light their way, rather than building warming fires. Though occasionally they would still pass through a pocket of methane and a stray ember would fall from their torches, and the whole chain of fire and light would begin again, culminating once more with a vent hole being blown open and shards of glittering ice tumbling down into their lair.

What would it have looked like seen from above? The orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice. And what would the sheet of lake ice itself have looked like that night? Throbbing with the ice-bound subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire. But again, there was no one to view the spectacle, only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage or loft from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches. The beauty in front of them was enough.

They knew they were getting near a shore. The southern shore, they hoped, as they followed the glazed moon's lure above. When the dogs began to encounter shore birds that had somehow found their way beneath the ice through small fissures and rifts and were taking refuge in the cattails. Small winter birds -- juncos, nuthatches, chickadees, skittered away from the smoky approach of their torches. Only a few late-migrating or winter-trapped snipe held tight and steadfast, and the dogs began to race ahead of Gray Owl and Ann, working these familiar scents. Blue and silver ghost shadows of dog muscle weaving ahead through slants of moonlight.

The dogs emitted the odor of adrenaline when they worked, Ann said. A scent like damp, fresh-cut green hay. And with nowhere to vent, the odor was dense and thick around them, so that Ann wondered if it, too, might be flammable, like the methane. If in the dogs' passions they might literally immolate themselves.

They followed the dogs closely with their torches. The ceiling was low, about eight feet, as if in a regular room. So that the tips of their torches' flames seared the ice above them, leaving a drip behind them and transforming the milky, almost opaque cobalt and orange ice behind them wherever they passed into wandering ribbons of clear ice translucent to the sky. A script of flame or buried flame, ice-bound flame. And they hurried to keep up with the dogs.

Now the dogs had the snipes surrounded, as Ann told it. And one by one the dogs went on point, each dog freezing as if pointing to the birds' hiding places. And it was the strangest scene yet, Ann said, seeming surely underwater. And Gray Owl moved in to flush the birds, which launched themselves with vigor against the roof of the ice above, fluttering like bats. But the snipe were too small, not powerful enough to break through those frozen four inches of water. Though they could fly 4,000 miles to South America each year and then back to Canada six months later.

And as Gray Owl kicked at the clumps of frostbit cattails where the snipe were hiding, and they burst into flight only to hit their heads on the ice above them, they came tumbling back down raining limp and unconscious back to their soft, grassy nests. The dogs began retrieving them, carrying them gingerly, delicately, not preferring the taste of snipe, which ate only earthworms. And Ann and Gray Owl gathered the tiny birds from the dogs, placed them in their pockets, and continued on to the shore, chasing that moon, the ceiling lowering to six feet, then four, then to a crawlspace. And after they had bashed their way out, with elbows, fists, and forearms, and stepped back out into the frigid air, they tucked the still-unconscious snipe into little crooks in branches up against the tree trunks and off the ground, out of harm's way, and passed on south, as if late in their own migration. While the snipe rested, warm and terrified and heart-fluttering, but safe for now against the trunks of those trees.

Long after Ann and Gray Owl and the pack of dogs had passed through, the birds would awaken, their bright dark eyes luminous in the moonlight. And the first sight they would see would be the frozen marsh before them with its chain of still-steaming vent holes stretching back across all the way to the other shore. Perhaps these were birds that had been unable to migrate, owing to injuries or some genetic absence. Perhaps they had tried to migrate in the past but had found either their winter habitat destroyed or the path so fragmented and fraught with danger that it made more sense, to these few birds, to ignore the tuggings of the stars and seasons, and instead to try to carve out new lives, new ways of being, even in such a stark and severe landscape. Or, rather, in a stark and severe period. Knowing that lushness and bounty were still retained in that landscape. That it was only a phase. That better days would come. That in fact, the snipe, knowing these things with their blood ten million years in the making. The austere times were the very thing, the very imbalance, that would summon the resurrection of that frozen richness within the soil. If indeed, that richness, that magic, that hope did still exist beneath the ice and snow. Spring would come like its own green fire, if only the injured ones could hold on.

And what would the snipe think or remember, upon reawakening and finding themselves still in that desolate position, desolate place and time, but still alive and with hope? Would it seem to them that a thing like grace had passed through as they slept? That a slender winding river of it had passed through and rewarded them for their faith and endurance? Believing stubbornly that that green land beneath them would blossom once more? Maybe not soon, but again. If the snipes survived, they would be among the first to see it.

Perhaps they believed that the pack of dogs, and Gray Owl's and Ann's advancing torches, had been only one of winter's dreams. Even with the proof, the scribing's of grace's passage before them, the vent holes still steaming, perhaps they believed it was only one of winter's dreams.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Rick, there's one thing I'd love to hear from this story. And that's about the ice.

BASS: Well, I kind of worry -- or used to worry about myself sometimes. I have such deep feelings for such simple things. Not just ice, but fire and snow and the four primary seasons, and stone and antlers and bones and feathers. Just stuff like that. That story about northern people having so many different words for snow and ice. And it's true. I mean, even though it's elemental it's not simple, and it's not limited.

RITCHIE: Rick, it reminded me of the most wonderful wilderness experience of my life. Which was an opportunity to visit Alaska in January. I had a chance to go dogsleding with an outdoorsman who allowed me to drive his sled, team of six dogs, down a frozen river for about ten miles. And we stopped and had lunch just sitting next to a beaver lodge. And we saw wolf tracks. And it has occupied in my mind a much larger space than it actually took in time. And it took me there when you were describing that landscape.

BASS: Isn't that astounding, that notion of a river still being a river even when it's not moving, or when you don't see it moving?

RITCHIE: Yeah. What a fantastic landscape. And, you know, the darkness of it in the winter time and the glow of the moonlight and the sunlight on that snowy landscape, and the black and whiteness of it all appeals to me hugely. I would love to go back there that time of year.

BASS: I love it, that notion of the rules changing or turning upside-down, where what was water is now drivable. Things just get turned upside-down, and most of the animals leave, and instead of it being a busy, crowded time and place, it's so austere.

CURWOOD: I just want to thank you all -- Fiona Ritchie and Rick Bass and Dovie Thomason, for taking this time with Living on Earth.

BASS: Thank you, guys. It was my treat listening.

RITCHIE: It was nice that -- I just love that we were all just voices to one another, you know? Because that just made the listening all the more intense for me, anyway.

THOMASON: The old storytellers say you should be able to tell your stories in the dark, you know? And that -- that's kind of what we've been doing, isn't it?

RITCHIE: It is.

THOMASON: Telling our stories in the dark.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our solstice storytelling special was produced by Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, with help from Jennifer Chu and Maggie Villiger. Fiona Ritchie's story about the trows was written by George Mackay Brown, and was published in Midwinter Music: A Scottish Anthology for the Festival Season. You can find Rick Bass's tale, "The Hermit's Story," in the Best American Short Stories of 1999. And you can locate audiotapes of Dovie Thomason's collection of award-winning stories, Lessons from the Animal People, at Yellow Moon Press. Special thanks to Jane Fritz in Bull Lake, Montana, and the folks at the BBC in Edinburgh, Scotland, for their studio help.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Nathan Johnson, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Happy holidays.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for reporting on marine issues; the Surdna Foundation; the Town Creek Foundation; the James and Kathleen Stone Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Special: Dovie Thomason's Other Story

THOMASON: Well, there's a tiny story of the chipmunk, and how when the bear went to hibernate one year he found that his sleep was disturbed by a chipmunk who somehow had found its way into his cave. And each time the bear tried to sleep, the chipmunk's restlessness tickled him. It tickled his feet, it tickled his toes, it tickled his ankles. It wakened him. And it made him surly and growl, but he had to show kindness to this chipmunk. And yet he also had to follow this greater imperative of getting to sleep.

And the chipmunk hearing that bear was doing something he had never heard of, this long sleep through winter, looked at the snow outside and decided he, too, wanted to sleep. And each time the bear went deep into his sleep the chipmunk wakened him with his scurrying, his wiggling, his tickling, his restlessness, his movement, his curiosity. Was it snowing still? Had the snow stopped? Had spring come yet? What else can I do? What else can I see? Ever-moving.

Until at last the bear could abide the chipmunk no longer and said, "You are small and need my protection. I am big and so I must not harm you, nor throw you into the cold where you would be harmed. Yet I cannot bear to have you crawling on me, scurrying through my fur, trying to sleep, nestled near to my fat, which I have collected for my own purposes. But, I will let you stay here in my cave."

And he made a tiny bed for the chipmunk. And the chipmunk lay in that bed, but the bear enclosed him with his great paw like a cage. And said, "There. Now you may sleep. Hibernate if you can. Try the long sleep of my people, though it may not be your power."

And it was not. As soon as the bear was asleep the chipmunk was on the move. He could not be still. And he decided that his power was not a power he would find in that cave. It was not the power of bears. But he lifted the claws of the bear and settled them on his back, and edging, inching, squirming, wiggling, he moved from beneath the paw. Though his back was marked forever with those claws and the tracks they made down his back.

And so the chipmunk went on to find his own power. Perhaps it was the power of movement. Perhaps it was the power of getting out of a tight spot. It was his own power. It was not the power of bears. And perhaps we all may just do as well.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) It's a great story. I'm wondering, do you tell this the same way every time?

THOMASON: No, goodness no. When I first began telling stories, I think I tried very hard to be meticulous and precise. And I think that can become an academic or archaeological way of looking at culture. That preservation can also mean the death of things. It's more perpetuation and continuity that I'm interested in.

RITCHIE: So many parallels with the traditional music and storytelling over here. Oh yeah. I mean, what you said about a living tradition, I mean that's so important, that traditional music or storytelling not be something that sort of sits in a glass case, and we take it out, and we treat it very preciously. But something that's worn all the time and that gets kind of tatty, and, you know, used. And has a sense that each generation picks these things up and handles them and works with them and makes of them what they will and passes them on.

CURWOOD: Fiona, let's turn to you. What do you have for us for a story?

RITCHIE: This piece of writing is inspired by folklore and traditions in Orkney, and that's an archipelago of about 70 islands, although only 18 are actually inhabited. And lying off the northeast tip of Scotland, there are natural geographical links with Norway. In fact in the ninth century, Viking settlements reinforced all these geographical links. But although Orkney is, you know, now for many centuries part of Scotland, those Norse links are still very evident in the local dialect. But Orkney's a bit dear to me, because growing up, my strongest childhood friendship was a girl whose family was from Orkney. And she used to go there for her summer holidays. And she'd bring back photographs and postcards of a place called Scatterbrae [phonetic spelling]. And this is a very well-preserved Neolithic settlement that dates back at least 5,000 years.

The stone dwelling places, and the sort of community of Scatterbrae [phonetic spelling] and the channels, they were actually built into the ground. You have the impression of people living almost partially underground for shelter. And that is something that sort of came to mind for me in thinking about reading something to do with hibernation and winter. And the piece I'm going to read was written by George Mackay Brown. Much of his work, and certainly this piece, really draws upon the wealth of legend and folklore in the culture of Orkney, his homeland.

In the northern islands, December is a dark month. The lamps are burning when people go to their work. Light thickens again in the early afternoon. The weather, more often than not, is cold and stormy. There are also calm, clear nights, when the hemisphere of sky is hung with stars. And in the north, the aurora borealis rustles like curtains of heavy yellow silk.

It is the season of the Nativity. It is also the time of trows. To the islanders, the earth they tilled was an element of dark, dangerous, contending energies. The good energy of the earth raised their crops into the sun and rain and wind. But there were other earth energies bent on famine, sickness, death. These energies were active always. Especially in the dark, cold time of the year when nothing grew, the earth seemed to belong to them entirely.

The island farmers knew this evil brood as trows. And the trows were more than vague, abstract energies. They had shape and substance. They could dance. They could speak. They could travel between the hill and the plowed field. They were often seen, but only by people who had the gift.

The trows belonged to the underworld, to the kingdom of night. Hideous shapes they represented, all the curses of unredeemed nature. The best way to contain the kingdom of winter and death was to lead a decent life. For the trolls were, among other things, embodiments of the seven deadly sins. And it was best to observe duly the rituals of Christianity, as well as other rituals that were old when the megalithic people built the storms at Brodgar.

The trows grew strong and bold in winter in proportion, as the creatures of light paled and dwindled. The most precious creatures in a croft and the most liable to corruption were the children. If the children were not protected, it was easy for the trows to steal them. What happened was this: The trows left their own offspring in the cradle, and these winter children generally grew up sick and deformed. So the people say of someone who looks permanently ill that he is trowie.

December the twenty-fourth was a night specially holy and terrible. The trows, in dark hordes, lingered outside every croft. The terror of darkness was held in check by a strictly-observed ritual. The mother brought out a basin and filled it with water. The man of the house, priest-like, took three live embers from the fire and dropped them in the water. So in midwinter, the elements of fire and water were true to the tryst of purification.

In this condensed drama, all nature, light and darkness, the four elements, plant and beast and man, were seen as part of a divine festival. The creatures of nature kept their trysts in season. They could not behave otherwise. Man, with his scattered and distracted energies, the flesh tugging forever against the spirit, moving between the trow-infested Earth and the angel-fretted sky, proclaimed his allegiance to the kingdom of light, of which he was the shining, wayward heir, in the form of a willed and strictly observed ritual. As now, when the priest-like crofter, his dwindled fields all around him, mingled the elements of fire and water for a purification, that his winter-beleaguered household might be worthy to eat bread, a mingling of his own harrow sweat with heaven's blaze.

One by one, each member of the family washed himself all over in the fire-kissed water and put on clean clothes. They made then an act of great faith. Though the night outside was thick with trows, they unfastened the door and left the lamp burning, and went to bed. It was possible that Our Lady and St. Joseph with their as-yet-hidden treasure would come to their croft that night seeking shelter.

Early on Christmas morning, the man of the house rose before daybreak while the others were still asleep. He lit a candle in the skull of a cow, carefully fixing it in the eye socket. He fed the beasts by its light, giving them more to eat than usual. It was a re-enaction of the scene in Bethlehem. The animals had also been present at Christ's nativity. The flame in the skull was a reminder to them that they shared both immortality and, in this blessed time, the kindling of the one true light in the world's darkness. There was nothing to be afraid of now. The trows had returned to their burrows, defeated. Christ was born among the fields.

The children were awake when the crofter came back. They had a small candle each, that they lit and set here and there about the room. The crofter filled a bowl with whiskey. Quintessence of earth's ripeness, the heavy rich blood of summer. Solemnly he carried the bowl to each person in turn. Even the children had to wet their lips. The bread lay on the table -- not the course, everyday bannock but Yule-brunnies, little round yellow cakes of rye and fat, pinched at the edges to represent the sun's rays. A Yule-brunnie for everyone in the house.

The Christmas breakfast was a festival of candlelight. The eating of the cakes was a kind of pre-Christian, non-sacramental communion. In the heart of winter, they devoured the sun, and so filled their days with light and gaiety and fruitfulness.

THOMASON: I feel completely unsurprised that so many Scot-Irish people came over here and married my people. (Laughs) The stories are just, there are just pieces of them, they feel so familiar. So human.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.