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6. Sowing in the World of Winter

Those who sow in winter reap in summer.
The winter is the world, the summer the other aeon. Let us sow in the world that we may reap in the summer. Because of this it is fitting for us not to pray in the winter.
Summer follows winter. But if any man reap in winter he will not actually reap but only pluck out, since it will not provide a harvest for such a person. It is not only [in winter] that it will [not] come forth, but also on the Sabbath [the harvest] is barren.
Gospel of Philip 7-8

The great Tao floods its banks,
to the left, to the right.
Ten thousand being live by it,
and it does not choose among them.
Work is accomplished,
yet it shows no outward sign.
It clothes and nourishes
ten thousand beings,
but has no favorites.
Tao te Ching 34


Throw Yourself Like Seed
Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit
sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.

Now you are only giving food to that final pain
which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
but to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
is the work; start then, turn to the work.

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
don't turn your face for that would be to turn it to death,
and do not let the past weigh down your motion.

Leave what's alive in the furrow, what's dead in yourself,
for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

~ Miguel De Unamuno ~
(Roots and Wings, edited and translated by Robert Bly)


6. Sowing in the World of Winter

Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Left Hand of Darkness1, takes place on a planet called Winter. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent to convince the citizens to join the 83-planet collective called the Ekumen. But the real hero of the story is Estraven, who goes from Prime Minister to exiled traitor to fugitive. Genly Ai trusts in the surface of things, and the easy flattery of those who see a way to use him. When Estraven is in favor, Genly Ai is impatient with Estraven's sense that the timing isn't right to join the Ekumen. Then Genly Ai turns against him with the rest when Estraven is exiled, even though it's cause by his actions on behalf of Genly Ai's cause. Then Genly Ai turns against him with the rest when he is exiled, even though its cause is Estraven's actions on his behalf. Genly Ai believes that the integrity and mutual benefit of the mission is all it needs to succeed, and is taken by surprise when it fails. When Genly Ai goes to the next country to try again, Estraven, who is in exile there, continues to work in the background, making use of shifty alliances, but seeing them as they are. What others see reflected in him is what they are themselves - opportunists looking to further their own cause. But without drawing attention to himself, and scorned by Genly Ai, he manipulates the most likely path to success in that country.

However, Genly Ai's guileless trust in the smooth politicians sends him to a prison where he ends up near – death. Estraven manages to break him out, and they make an arduous journey across a glacier to go back into the land from which Estraven has been exiled. Against all odds, they make it, and it seems that Genly Ai's mission will succeed after all, but Estraven is betrayed by a friend. He's shot trying to escape, in a manner that can ambiguously be read as a free choice - a willing sacrifice. The rest of Genly Ai's mission goes exactly as Estraven predicted when they traveled on the ice. His success is assured, not because of the integrity of his cause, but because it gives advantage in the political rivalry between the two countries. On well-oiled runners, he glides through the manipulations of government, that have themselves been manipulated for the reluctant good of all.

In the world of Winter, to all apparent purposes, Estraven fails and fails and fails, up to his final failure to escape. He takes none of his changes of fate personally. Genly Ai takes his own dramatic ascents to heart, and so is unsuspecting when they crash down. To Estraven, the apparent is illusory, but he's not a cynic. Beneath the shifting alliances driven by fear and greed, Estraven trusts in the basic goodness at the ground of being. He sees the whole at once, which is the center of their religion - the knowledge of things in their integrity, which the gospel of Philip calls apocatastasis. Estraven says, "I never had a gift but one, to know when the great wheel gives to a touch, to know and act...A great delight it was to feel that certainty again, to know that I could steer my fortune and the world's chance like a bobsled down the steep, dangerous hour2." In retrospect, all of Estaven's failures, including his death, are the only way that Genly Ai's success could have happened in that period of time.

We, living in the Winter world of time and perception, are looking in the wrong places for results. We think that it would be success to get in a government that's not as bad as the other. Estraven says, "A man who doesn't detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it."3 But that's neither his purpose nor his obstacle. We want to end war and injustice. Estraven writes, "To oppose something is to maintain it. They say here, 'all roads lead to Mishnory.' To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road."4 We want to be good citizens, and take care of our own first. Estraven says, "How does one hate a country, or love one? ...I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing."5 We want to help the poor in our own community, even though ten problems spring up for every one cut down. At that point, we give up on results, and say that our virtue lies in the struggle, whether or not it makes any difference. So we expend ourselves fighting weeds, and plant no seed for the future.

What would it mean to have faith in the Seed, in the sureness of Summer and the goodness of the Ground? The metaphor can be taken literally. $100 can buy seed for 20 families living off the land in an undeveloped country. The year's harvest will provide seed for next year. The goat will give milk, fertilize the ground and have kids. The tool will enable the work of the next 20 years. We won't live to see the fruit of these seeds in our life, but it's the best chance of making a permanent difference: one family at a time, thousands of miles away. Why isn't this our shared and only purpose?

Estraven lives by personal integrity and an ultimate goal, but ignores the shifting sand of social status and political correctness in between. He doesn't try to change them, or "pray to prevent winter", as Leloup's translation of Philip says. He sees winter clearly, with the seed of summer in its belly. The mystical foretellers of the planet Winter are said to "make the hunch run in harness". Rather than seeing the future, it's "the power of seeing (if only for a flash) everything at once; seeing whole."6 Genly Ai is trained in a form of this called Farfetching, the goal of which can be described as "the intuitive perception of a moral entirety;...thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor."7 By his own admission, he's not very good at it. Neither are we.

Winter of Perception, Summer of Knowledge

Philip and Ursula K. LeGuin may give us a way to reconcile the compromises of our day-to-day existence with the ideals we seek. In fact, we may be delaying the harvest of our ideals because we keep plucking them out prematurely. We live in the world of Winter, the world of time and perception.

Are we walking the road to war even by opposing it? To define our selves as pacifists requires others to be cast in the opposite role - it's an antagonistic stance that divides into sides. Let us choose another road that we can walk together, in caring for the seeds, for the world's children. We can choose ignorance: "to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing." Peace and justice are unattainable, because they have no substance. A family with an unexpected means of survival is a beautiful, tangible thing. Whether or not we have the imagination to see it, it's the only thing that's real.

If justice is worth cultivating, let us cultivate it first in ourselves and government will follow. Is it just that we take the products of a thousand people's labor, and give them nothing of our labor in return? If peace is worthy, is it worthy for us? Can we give up our need for a villain to absorb our righteous anger? When the Tao overflows its banks, it will water the seeds that we've sown into our own field. What's alive - hope, joy, sufficiency - we can give to someone else for cheap, even if we can't afford it for ourselves. We can leave what's dead - anger, blame, guilt - in ourselves.

"Sluggish, you will never see the wheel of fate that brushes your heel as it goes by." Know when the great wheel gives to a touch. Without intuiting the rhythm of the Tao, it will flood the empty banks or the seeds will shrivel in the dry ground: "in action, watch the timing."8 "Life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds," which are here and then gone, leaving no trace. All of humanity is one furrow, one worker, repeating the same movement, back and forth. Winter is not a time of harvest, but of labor. So throw yourself like seed as you walk, don't turn your face to death or let the past weigh down your motion. And from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

1LeGuin, Ursula K., The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969.
2 LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. p. 190.
3 LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. p 213.
4 LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. p 151.
5 LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. p 212.
6 LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. p.205.
7 LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. p 146.
8 Tao te Ching 8 - Translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English