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Winter Solstice 2023

By Steven Galipeau, MA, MDiv, LMFT

A few weeks ago my wife went into our garden and came upon a praying mantis.  It was a striking and unusual experience.  The mantis almost totally blended in with the green of its host bush, but came off the bush onto her arm and shoulder, where it was comfortable enough that I could get a picture.  And equally amazing this remarkable creature remained in the garden for a week.  Given all that is going on in the world, most recently the terrible conflicts in Israel and the Gaza strip, it becomes crucial to cherish these surprising experiences in nature.  They have a way of staying with you.

What came to mind for me was the important figure of Mantis in the mythology of the African Bushmen.  Of all the great creatures on the African continent: lions, elephants, gorillas, it was the praying mantis that most captured the imagination of the Bushmen as representing the first spirit of creation.  Their story is captured by Laurens van der Post in many of his books.  Van der Post had grown up with a nurse who was part Bushmen and had glimpses through her of these people and their unique relationship to the natural world in a continent brimming with all sorts of wildlife.


So later in life van der Post went in search of these unique people in the heart of Africa.  The journey to find them was expressed in several books, some documenting his search for them and others their unique mythology. His book The Heart of the Hunter documents much of what he came to learn about the latter.  Bushmen also became featured in several novels he wrote.  His novel, A Far Off Place, was made into a feature film with several story modifications and starring Reese Witherspoon.


Later Van der Post collaborated with Jane Taylor on a book called Testament to the Bushmen, and when his wife went to Zurich to become a Jungian analyst, he and Jung developed a friendship.  Jung had visited Africa in one of his travels and valued Van der Post’s connection to its first people.  Van der Post in turn developed a film and book, Jung and the Story of Our Time.


Van der Post’s writings can serve as a way to reconnect to nature amidst the crisis of climate change, and as places to visit as we approach the Winter Solstice.  Where do we find the light in the darkness is as critical question for us all as much as ever?


Curiously as I was working on this article an interesting coincidence happened, what Jung called synchronicity.  Jean Guerrero of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about how she realized she was becoming too connected to our electronics world (Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, November 27, 2023).  When her iPhone broke down, she resolved to take a break from social media.  In the beginning she went to a dance retreat, and found it was easy.  But as she watched others disappear into that world, she found the pull to it again that she would have to watch.  She reported reading Katherine May’s Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age that evening and notes, “I had no memory of finishing the book, which I read earlier this year.  But when I reached the final chapters, I saw my own pen markings.  It was ironic: I’d read a book about attention while so distracted that I’d forgotten most of the experience.”


The next morning while eating breakfast on the patio she noticed a praying mantis on the ground.  It was crawling toward the dining hall door, where it would be crushed.  “I knelt down to move it to safety, charmed by its resemblance to foliage and its worshipful pose.  I wondered how many small wonders I’d missed while staring at my phone.”  She concludes her article, “ A few times, I felt social media’s pull.  But each time, I resisted, remembering the lesson of the praying mantis.  Now the challenge is keeping up my resistance in normal life.”


This can be a challenge for all of us throughout the year, but especially at this time of year when our society ramps up its activity, a time early peoples like the Bushmen would be tuning into nature.  Hopefully, like Jean Guererro and the Bushmen we can remember the lessons of Mantis.

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