SENTIENCE

Photos and Essay by Keely Hollyfield

In every deep midwinter I have ever lived through—that is to say, every year of my life—I have gone out into the woods to feel immersed in cold, in hunkered-down-ness, in stillness. Midwinter is the quietest time in the woods, especially when fallen snow muffles all there is to be heard. Even birds seem to carry on shorter conversations than they would in spring, wondering if a friend has found food or if they should return to their nests and try again tomorrow. 

 

Yet a noisy human walks through. I am less clumsy than I would be if there weren’t snow, but each footstep still is thunder to wildlife accustomed to quiet. Usually, when I first set out, I walk quickly, not running—but almost—as though I’m trying to get away from the cabin fever suffocating me back home. I walk, making snap decisions about my destination, making sure to get as far from human contact as I possibly can. I don’t want to be around people any longer, that’s why I’m here. 

 

Always on these walks, at some point I scold myself for my fast pace, for not stopping to see the beauty around me. My mother says each snowflake is unique, every single one, and therefore each snowfall is different because it is comprised of different pieces. This moment I am experiencing has never existed before and will never exist again. With that in mind, I look more carefully at the small patterns in the snow. What once looked fresh and untouched carries small footprints from birds and mice, burrowed holes for voles, and seeds scattered just beneath the surface. There are frost patterns on the trees, branches heavy. Sometimes the only sound is that gentle sigh of snow falling from trees in a brief avalanche, allowing the boughs to stand tall again. And somewhere, in this sea of observation, I realize I am at peace. 

 

I find myself smiling in spite of the stuffiness I felt before. I find that the landscape has taken my mind to another place without conscious effort. My walk is slower now and filled with pauses to examine and enjoy the moment that will never exist again. My heart feels full with uniqueness, yet somber with the knowledge that it is fleeting. Each breath I take is a bite of the crisp air that will only be inhaled this once. Consciousness of the transience adds to the beauty. 

 

I walk deeper and deeper into the woods, feeling it must be endless though I know it is not. My mind emptying in the depth of this meditation, thoughts begin to enter my head. I have the feeling of prayer. I see a thought in the front of my head, but I am able to let it go more easily than I would enclosed in a structure built by human hands. I release my thoughts into the ether where they dissipate as quickly as they formed. My mother says nature is the only truth that can guide a person through their lives because it has existed the longest; that the wisdom of nature is greater and more powerful than the written word, than science, than anything created by humans. A sense of awe begins to gather in the soles of my feet—seeming to come from the ground itself—and spirals up through my legs, encircles my stomach, and then reaches the nape of my neck. The sense of awe has turned to yellow light in my body as it travels, and slowly gathers in my head as a feeling of fullness, suddenly seeming to radiate out of my skull at all angles. Recalling the memory I can still feel a rush of great energy surging to my crown. 

 

I have never questioned this sensation. My exultation and physical reaction to my connection with the world seems the most natural thing to have ever happened. The transformation from my human concerns with the world to a feeling of awe-inspired joy is nothing short of magic. Once I asked my mother if she could do magic. I was not a child, I think I was twenty when I asked and she responded, smiling secretly, “Well, sometimes when I will things to happen, they do.” She laughed. 

 

My midwinter ritual harkens back to my mother’s will to make things change for herself. When I am in a bad mood, I go on walks and will my mind to clear itself, to empty itself like the midwinter day. Then I will myself to see how not empty the day is, and to accept what I am seeing for what it is, without judgement and only with joy. This is the heart of meditation in midwinter. The earth has given us what we need—a time of stillness to reflect, see, and accept the world. To gather our minds back to ourselves. To take back our peace. 

 

I can always feel my pulse more strongly in winter. I have an awareness of it in my ears that is akin to the loudness of the pulse before one faints, though I feel strong when I hear my winter heartbeat. Whenever I am conscious of the rush of blood through my veins, I think of my ancestors who gave me this blood I stand in. I think of the blood that coursed through them and wonder what they thought about. I know, in my truest heart, that some or one of them felt this deep connection to nature and passed it into my blood. I know that someone before me felt light come up from the earth, surge through them, and radiate outward. Someone walks with me on these winter days, imparting the strength, wisdom, and warmth of the past, imbuing me with lucidity in the moment I am experiencing. In that moment I am assured I am exactly where I am supposed to be, who I am supposed to be, and what I am supposed to be. I feel connected to past, present, and future equally. The winter stillness invites the space and time necessary to feel such connections. The peace of the moment opens the door to ancestry and deep subconscious knowledge; I step outside of the norms of the day to greet the unknown all around and will myself to pay attention to it.

 

There’s that word “will” again. My mother’s will. How she taught me that I could will myself to be and do what I wanted. Suffice to say, when I go walking in midwinter, I know myself to be scattered, and I will myself to be clear-minded. I left my home to leave people behind, nature created the space for me to center myself, and yet I found another human, my ancestor, helping to bestow peace upon me. And nature, constant nature, cajoled me into stillness and allowed the bridge to build itself between me and my past. The cycle of the seasons aided me in my own clarity. 

 

And so it has always been.

Keely Hollyfield

Maryland, United States

Seasons of nature are gifts bestowed upon us if we recognize what they have to offer. I write a reflection of the peace of midwinter and the space it gifts us to connect with ourselves, our surroundings, and our ancestors.

'Sentience' re-orients perspectives and asks:

what is alive?

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