Shelter is a word dear to a cronish heart in these autumn days when cold winds blow at twilight, and one senses that Lady Winter is peering over the hill. Daylight arrives later and later at this time of the year, and one can become insular, retreating to books, tea and a chair by the hearth, pulling draperies closed and trying to tune out the world beyond the windows. I find myself turning inward and dwelling on the tiny flame at the heart of things that promises warmth, sunlight and longer days somewhere up the trail, if one can only hang on. These are only October's middling pages, so there is a long long way to go.
The etymology of shelter is obscure, but the word has been with us since the late sixteenth century, finding its origins perhaps in the much earlier Old English scieldtruma: scield meaning shield + truma meaning a unit of fighting men or warriors. Synonyms include: aerie, anchorage, apartment, asylum, cave, cove, cover, covert, crib, defense, den, digs, dwelling, guard, guardian, harbor, haven, hermitage, hide, hideaway, hideout, hole in the wall, home, house, housing, hut, lodge, lodging, nest, oasis, port, preserve, protector, quarters, rack, refuge, retirement, retreat, roof, roost, safety, sanctuary, screen, security, shack, shade, shadow, shed, shield, tent, tower, turf, umbrella.
By modern definition, a shelter is a structure of some sort, a cabin or a cave, an embracing tree or thicket, a harbor shielded by guardian hills and out of the sea wind. Notions of rest, hibernation and sanctuary are central to all such creations - the poet priest Gerard Manley Hopkins described the fundamentals of shelter perfectly in Heaven/Haven:
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
All sentient creatures have their shelters and sanctuaries, and the trappings are highly personal, enfolding that which affords nurture and protection to a particular living thing. For deer and wild turkeys, it is the protection and nourishment afforded by woodland cedar groves in winter; for the great bears their snug leaf-lined caves; for rabbits, it is the overhanging branches of tall old spruces shielding them from icy temperatures and hungry predators. For me, it is (for the most part) my hearth, a mug of tea and a comfortable chair out of the elements.
For the residents of the Battle River Bison farm in the Lanark Highlands, shelter is a movable feast, and they create their own wherever they happen to be, bracing themselves, lowering their lavishly maned heads into rain or snow or wind and standing fast. When bison move together, they move with assurance, facing directly into the elements rather than turning away as domestic cattle do (wild and woolly Highland cattle being the exception perhaps).
After several seasons of watching the bison herd in all its bulk and splendor, I have developed a "thing" about the majestic creatures and spend hours peering into their paddock with a long long lens on the camera. I could learn a thing or three from them, and I shall be working on that this winter, hanging out by the fence and watching them just breathe in and out in the icy wind, facing into the elements myself and trying to stand firm and mindful as they do. There will (of course) be myriad layers of warm clothing involved in the process, a camera and a whole bag of lenses in the equation too.