The sun sets on winter solstice. As of this night, the days will get longer, the nights shorter. I can’t visualise or comprehend the dance of suns and planets that creates this transition. Like my ancestors, I am content to be awed at the mystery: “The sun is born!”
Even if I did understand, I would refuse to sacrifice the awe. Rather, I would quote the retired star in C.S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who replies to a young boy’s comment that “in our world a star is a huge flaming ball of gas”. The star says: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of”. My family has been caught, this year, in the solstice mystery; this web of stars and planets and the earth’s ongoing drama of an old pattern dying and a new one being born. In our own eclectic way, we have joined in weaving the web, spinning a ritual between three such unlikely anchor points as: the realm of insects, the chocolate fundraiser at my daughter’s school, and the winter solstice.
First strand: insects
It is no accident that I’m seeing vast galactic dances mirrored in the small and delicate tapestry of a spider’s web. I have been drawn into a slow but inexorable shift in attitude towards the realm of insects. Our family has had a mixed approach to these small co-residents of the planet. Crickets and mantises have spent time in the house as honorary pets, and my daughters enjoy watching the antics of beetles and caterpillars. Spiders are respected. Some live around our windowsills and we observe their web building, fly catching and baby hatching exploits with interest. Others, such as wolf spiders and white tails, we catch under a drinking glass and deport outside. Even the insects we have categorised as ‘animals we are at war with’, such as mosquitoes and ants, get a murmured apology as they are slapped or vacuumed up.
I have been comfortable with this state of affairs, but was recently brought up short by my youngest daughter and my own anathema insect; the cockroach. I grew up in Asia, where we had very big cockroaches that sometimes poured out of drains in hordes, and at one point in their cycle, flew. Ever since, I have nursed a deep and abiding horror of cockroaches, no matter their size or sub-species. But when I found a wee cockroach in our bathroom, and told my children to step back so I could flush it down the toilet, my three year old, (who can catch and deport a bug as well as anyone) said: “No Mumma! You have to take it outside so it can find its Mumma and Daddy!” I stopped in my tracks, my personal fetish crumbling under the undeniable fact that cockroaches also have mummies and daddies. I took it outside.
So I was primed for the moment when, wandering the local library, I pulled out The Voice of the Infinite in the Small; (Re-Visioning the Insect-Human Connection) by Joanne Elizabeth Lauck. I took it home, and found that I had stumbled onto one of those rare and wonderful books that delves to the template below our day to day actions and starts rearranging things. Lauck’s book is about insects’ intriguing and remarkable capabilities and lives, their enormous importance to a healthy ecological balance, and their connection to humans both directly, and as archetypes. We of the technologically sophisticated West tend to perceive insects as pests or threats, and quite alien from ourselves. In this book we are asked to step back and consider the ways cultures around the world and back through time have perceived insects, and to be open to a shift or myriad small shifts in perspective that might make a crucial difference to what kind of earth we bequeath our children.
Some of the stories Lauk tells about people’s communication with insects gets into a level of thinking outside my comfort zone. However, like many people, I have had experiences that fall into the category of ‘inexplicable’, so I suspend my disbelief and read on. But I think most people would find beauty in the very different ‘lens’ through which we are invited to see the insects of our planet – not as pests, or even ‘mini-beasts’ – but as unique characters in their own right, upholding their sphere in the balance of nature and the language of symbols.
Scorpion mothers have gestation periods of up to 22 months, give birth to live young, and the litter of 25 babies or so crawl onto their mother’s back and feed by osmosis (an insect’s answer to breast feeding). Flies are crucial to our welfare and comfort, pollinating plants and disposing of decaying matter, and serving as food for a host of other creatures. Being associated with a fly was an honour in ancient Egypt. My old (ahem) ‘friend’ the cockroach grooms itself vigorously, like a cat, after being touched by a human. They also groom each other and are viewed in some cultures as protective spirits. Mosquitoes are pollinators. Only females ready to lay eggs require blood, and they have fewer and fewer warm-blooded mammals left in their repertoire owing to destruction of wildlife. They are ‘heroes of ecology’ in that they have kept many wild areas uninhabitable for comfort-loving humans! As for beetles, when theologians asked biologist J.B.S. Haldane what one could infer about God from a study of creation, he replied that God must have ‘an inordinate fondness for beetles’. And apparently when beetles and other insects flock to destroy crops, it would serve us well to view them as messengers rather than enemies, alerting us to a problem or imbalance in the bigger picture.
One of the quotes that impressed me most came from the Dalai Lama. I grew up in a country undergoing profound and painful political upheavals, so I have deep respect for this man, who has seen his land and culture go through such trauma, and nevertheless refuses to hate anyone or to propose violence on any level. He still ‘sees a safe journey, sees a safe return’. I read that when the Dalai Llama was asked what he thought was the most important thing to teach children, he said: “Teach them to love insects”. What at first seemed almost a joke revealed itself as a cryptic comment engaging the hearer’s imagination. What can he mean? Having read Lauck’s book, I interpret him to mean that if we learn to understand and respect insects, the smallest and most vulnerable, and often the most demonised and maligned members of our planetary community, we will have achieved the ability to honour the web of life itself, and all that is in it. How could we fail to honour the history and culture of all peoples, or to respect the balance of nature, if we have seen the beauty and import of the small buzzing, flying, creeping, stinging things?
Second strand: the chocolate fundraiser
Some spiders, when constructing their web, will drop from their perch almost to the ground, letting out silk as they go (the original bungy jump). Then they will climb back up the strand, and wait for chance to do its work, a bit of wind to catch the thread and carry it to another anchor point. The chocolate fundraiser was the chance strand in the ritual that my daughters and I wove this solstice – an element we couldn’t have premeditated that swung into place at the last moment.
As a family we are not great fans of this school tradition. We don’t think of chocolate as a fantastic snack food, and though we occasionally eat it, we don’t really want to chomp down 50 dollars worth to serve our school. We also find it embarrassing to offer friends and family candy bars that are available in any milk bar and general store across the nation. I know it is a time-honoured event, and raises a lot of money for school endeavours. But my husband and I inevitably groan on the day that our older daughter turns up with the customary box or bag, and we begin the usual debate of “What shall we do this time?” We have covered most of our options by now. We have sold or munched a few bars, and turned back the remainder along with proceeds at the required time. We have returned the whole stash without even trying to sell them. We have rationalised that it would be good training for our daughter’s sales skills to walk the neighbourhood with chocolate bars ‘cold calling’ while we hover in the background. This time, my husband had an interesting idea: we could take our daughters to a nursing home and they could give out the chocolates to residents. But I couldn’t help wondering if, when I am of an age to reasonably qualify as a nursing home resident, will a caramel chocolate bar really do my increasingly hard-to-brush teeth any good? So the bag of chocolates remained sitting in our ‘organisation area’. I started getting the usual reminders from our school’s fundraising committee that I was one of those who had not returned chocolates or money and could I do so immediately please? But it was not until winter solstice that I got my inspiration.
Third strand: winter solstice
Looking at life on our planet as an interconnected web, it has occurred to me that from any pragmatic viewpoint, we humans are one of the least necessary bits. In fact, it could be argued that at present we are a serious threat. If flies were all to disappear overnight things would be in a right mess, with piles of unprocessed refuse everywhere, whereas if humans were to evaporate, the planet might breathe a collective sigh of relief. However, I cling to the belief that at our best we humans are here to notice the wonders that surround us, write poems, sing songs, dance dances in honour of the whole community of life. We find food and shelter as we go, as all creatures do. But I could paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ old star to say: “That is only what humans do while we’re here, not why we are here”. From time out of mind, in a host of different cultures, we have been noticers of life and creators of ritual; we heighten awareness, reminding ourselves that we are dancers in the midst of the dance, and honouring the mystery in all that surrounds us.
Our own culture tends to be sadly lacking in rituals and celebrations to honour our connection to this sphere we live on. Occasionally I try to do something about this – a special craft with my daughters and friends, celebratory food, a dance around a fire. This winter solstice we started to plan a bonfire night, preparing a pile of wood, buying ingredients for a curry, inviting friends. But that seasonal anti-hero, the cold virus, threw a spanner in the works; the kids just weren’t up to a party. Still I hated to let the solstice go by without a bit of ritual. And I had been wanting to make a symbolic statement of my new appreciation for insects as members of ‘All Our Relations’ (a Native American view of the creatures of our world). I felt guilty of arrogance, not so much for the fact that I have killed many insects – after all, killing is part of the way of the web – but I regretted having killed them in the spirit of someone who has the right to do so because they were small and disturbed my comfort and I was big. I had seen them as ‘other’, and had not been curious about their lives and their importance to nature’s balance, their significance to me. That day of ‘old things drawing to a close and new things burgeoning’ seemed an appropriate moment.
My daughters and I sat at the table and talked about insects and drew pictures. Mine was of a woman nursing a baby, her belly a line of ants, intertwined with a scorpion mother, babies on her back, tail raised to sting. Beside her were: a spider in her web, a bee in her comb, a cockroach, a mosquito, a caterpillar metamorphosing into a moth. My nine year old daughter drew a line of ants with placards: ‘Ants are good’, ‘Ants have rights’. She had a spider in a web, saying: “This is our world too”; and a scorpion: “We sting just like you to defend things we love”. She had liked Joanne Lauck’s description of scorpion mothers and was sad and angry when she heard about the practice of catching scorpions and enclosing them alive in resin to die there, as souvenirs for tourists. My three year old drew a modern art piece of what she assured us were ants.
We wrapped ourselves up in winter jackets and took our pictures out into a good spot in the bush together with the bag of chocolates. We decided to make them a gift to the insect world, especially the ants. (I have categorically vacuumed or squashed a great many of these creatures, without getting down to see the matter from an ant’s eye view or exploring alternative solutions, as a relative should.) We found a good spot in the middle of gum trees, arranged our pictures and started unwrapping chocolates. We lay them out in a spiral mandala. It was just before five o-clock, and though a misty rain was falling, we knew that in the west the sun was sinking on the shortest day of the year. “Goodbye old sun, hello new. Here we are with all our fellow creatures. The old pattern is shifting. We are sorry for behaving as though we were separate. We will be curious, we will weave you into our rituals, our myth-making, we will notice and honour your place in our web.”
When my husband came home, I told him about our ritual. He liked the idea, but wasn’t sure about all those chocolate bars in the bush. He envisioned wombats with the runs and said he would take it on himself to break the mandala into appropriately sized chunks and distribute them around the property’s ant holes. Admittedly, I had not stopped to consider the ecological implications of our mandala, only that ants would make the best possible use of a host of chocolate bars. We are not backing this as a way for anyone else to honour a solstice – or cope with a chocolate fundraiser! It was the chance strand, a way that suddenly seemed splendid and appropriate, to celebrate the solstice with ‘all our relations’.
As a spider spins her web, she coats each thread with liquid silk, then twangs it with her hind leg, and voila! The thread is a strand of sticky glistening beads. A web-spinning goddess is an ancient image in the human psyche, and I feel her tonight, hovering over me in her spider aspect. I am a mother, sitting at a computer, writing about children, chocolate and planetary dances, hoping to ‘wang’ the imagination of others who are ready to re-image their world. I am Spider, drawing strands of words from her belly, as she spirals in to the centre of her web, her quiet place, this solstice night.
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