Shelter's a word dear to a cronish heart when winter arrives and icy winds blow. Daylight hours are short, and I become insular, retreating to stacks of books, lighted candles, mugs of tea and a Morris chair by the hearth, pulling draperies closed at dusk and trying to tune out the world outside. In these dark few weeks before Yule, I find myself turning ever inward and thinking about the tiny flame at the heart of things, its tender bloom promising warmth, sunlight and longer days somewhere up the trail, if we can only hang on. Alas, these are merely December's beginning pages, and there are several weeks to go before the light returns, at least noticeably so.
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 or enclosure 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. We all have our shelters and sanctuaries, and the trappings are highly personal. For deer and wild turkeys, it's the protection and nourishment afforded by woodland cedar groves in winter. For hibernating bears, it's the secluded leaf-strewn dens where they can sleep away winter. For rabbits and hares, it's snug burrows in the earth and the overhanging branches of evergreens shielding them from icy temperatures and the rapt attention of predators. For me (for the most part), it's a fire on the hearth, a mug of Darjeeling tea and a comfortable chair out of the elements.
For local bison herds, shelter is a movable feast, and they create their own wherever they happen to be, bracing themselves against the wind, lowering their lavishly maned heads into the white stuff and standing fast. The great creatures think nothing of napping in deep snow, and when they move through it, they move together, facing directly into the elements rather than turning away as domestic cattle do, wild and woolly Highland cattle being the exception perhaps.
I could learn a thing or three from the bison, and I will be working on that this winter, just hanging out by the fence and watching them breathe in and out in the icy wind, facing into the elements myself and trying to stand as firmly and mindfully as they do. There will (of course) be layers and layers of warm clothing involved, a camera or three and a whole bag of lenses. Now, if only the snow would stay around and make the experience complete..........