January 23rd - February 21st
When the bitter cold becomes almost unbearable; when the frigid Northern forests yield no game and hearthside rumors of men turned cannibals from vile desperation haunt you more than your own hunger - then comes the Bone Moon.
A dark time of year when everything suffers but the Owl whose echoing hoot, it is said, could carry the omen of death. The time of year when people are gnawing on bones or even grinding down shed antlers into powder for soup.
" 'In my utter misery,' a Canadian Voyageur assured me, 'I have more than once roasted
and eaten my moccasins.' Many educated traders also assured me that if they had to
reckon up all the leather articles they have devoured in their life, they could easily make up
a couple of dozen skins."
-Johann Georg Kohl, Kitchi-Gami: Life Amongst the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1860
I have read horrific accounts of this time of year from anthropologists and interviews with indigenous Northerners. But it seems to me that the horror and atrocities of the Bone Moon (also known to various cultures as the Hunger Moon or Starvation Moon) was worse where people were broken up or marginalized by conquest. In functioning communities they reserved storytelling for this time of year, when the Bear was asleep and would not be offended if you spoke of him. When it was time to sit around the fire for days on end with little else to do but hear your elder's tales of life and death. A time of year where the distance between the two was closer than ever. I've read accounts of deep compassion and sharing, of suffering the Bone Moon as a community, everyone giving what they can and listening for the natural rhythms that bring hope for the end of a hard winter: a male Chickadee's mating call during the fiercest blizzard; Ravens and Owls nesting when they are still being snowed upon; collective dreams of Maple Sugar, spring fish runs and Morel mushrooms. It is no way an easy season, especially if people weren't able to put away enough provisions before winter, but it has been a time of planning for renewal and I think that is what kept folks going.
Bones of the great Cave Bear were found deep within isolated caves, arranged by Neanderthals, in ways reminiscent of ritual - whispers of a lost religion. Many cultures have practiced osteomancy, or oracle bones: a form of divination based on bones either in their natural state or after heating. Even in our modern culture a form of osteomancy is still alive in every Thanksgiving Day's wishbone. I've seen footage of the Dukha people of northern Mongolia hunting Moose and after they had lost their wounded prey in the dark, they applied fire and ash to a special shoulder blade to determine the location of the Moose. They found it in the valley where the bone told them, and killed it with a bone-handled knife.
Bones have provided effective tools for fleshing hides, digging roots, combing hair, and have been carved into fishing hooks. A recent discovery of 7,000 year old drop spindles made from bones revealed bone's important role in early textile production. Buttons, needles, weapons, jewelry - we'd be hard pressed to find a part of our lives where bones haven't played a role. The coolest pillow I've ever seen was in a documentary on tribal African trackers: after a day's hunt they'd curl up on the floor of their hut and rest their weary head on an Elephant femur. "Bone pillows" are making a comeback, but for some reason its just the bone shape that pillow manufacturers are mimicking. Apparently there is no market for the actual bone.
Outside right now, snow blankets the earth and the pines are sighing from a night wind off East Grand Traverse Bay. I'm thankful to be indoors and with friends. The smell from the kitchen is of venison liver cooked in a sauce of scotch and fresh Mallard stock. I'm tempted to go throw a bone over the burner to see if it will reveal when winter will end. But I'm not worried, I haven't got in enough skiing yet, and besides, I know spring is coming. I can feel it in my bones.