The Earth in Midwinter

If you’ve never read the Grimm’s’ tale, ‘The Three Little Men in the Wood’, you really should. The poor girl persecuted by her stepmother is sent out into the winter snow in a paper dress to look for strawberries. She comes to a little house where live three little men. When she sits down with them to eat her crust of bread, they ask her for some and she shares it with them. Then they ask her to sweep away the snow outside the door. Lo and behold! She finds strawberries! We are perhaps accustomed to think of the earth as going to sleep when autumn passes into winter. If Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual perception is to be trusted, nothing could be further from the truth. His perception is that in winter the earth beneath our feet is at its most wakeful. How can soil and stone and ore be wakeful? They can’t of course; they’re not entities that are imbued with consciousness. But the custodians of these things are conscious – super-conscious in fact: these are the Gnomes or root-spirits. At this time of year, they hold in their watchful protection two things, or rather, two sides of the same thing: the plant seeds and the plant Archetype. Natural science tells us that the archetype, or blueprint to which the plant grows is embedded in the seed itself, its DNA. This is half of the truth, the other half requiring the exercise and research of spiritual science (or Goethean observation) to disclose it, namely, that there is an all-embracing plant archetype with an independent, spiritual existence that exerts a formative influence on all plants. In the spring, the process of germination involves the Gnomes bringing this archetype, which they hold in their minds as Idea, into connection with the seeds. In winter, this Idea, as well as countless secrets of the universe, is being held in thought by the Gnomes. For the Gnomes, there is no difference between thought and perception. To see it is to know it. They look on our attempts at thinking (Rudolf Steiner describes this in quite amusing terms) with a mixture of disdain, puzzlement and ridicule. “Why do these humans have to go through this laborious activity of working up or organising their perceptions into concepts?” Dear old Goethe tapped in to gnome-consciousness when he apprehended the plant archetype. When he tried to explain it to his friend Schiller, Schiller congratulated him on having such a splendid idea. “Well,” said Goethe (I paraphrase), “if it is an idea, then I can see my ideas.” What has all this (if it isn’t complete gobbledegook) got to do with us humans? Well, it’s becoming very popular in some spheres of the eco-movement to talk about the Earth as a spiritual being. This is, I find, a commendable sentiment and a statement I’d agree with, but I’d like a little more detail. Or maybe a simple, all-encompassing persona is more comforting? A new G.O.D? That’s the trouble with gnomes – too much detail on the spiritual side of things and people run a mile or suggest you see a psychiatrist. Let’s leave the conceptual side then and focus on the moral. It is now glaringly clear that the health of the Earth is bound up with the moral health of humanity. If the scientific data hasn’t convinced you, read the story of Noah. Steiner puts a lot of detail on how morality becomes enmeshed in the life of nature. In six months’ time (or right now in the southern hemisphere), all our human virtues and failings stream out into the universe with the expanding, burgeoning life of nature. This is the counterpart, spiritual perception to the other physically-perceptible results of our moral condition: plastic in the oceans, CO2 in the atmosphere, but also the visible good we do. As Advent begins, some of our households will create a moss garden as an invitation for the Gnomes and, if they like the look of it, some will arrive to inhabit it. We adults may look at such a thing with disbelief or a condescending tolerance. This is because we don’t have sufficient imagination to discover the truth of it. But with our oh-so-wise adult human consciousness we could at least ask ourselves in the abstract: do I invite the spirits of nature in? Do I offer them a place in my awareness? Can I share with them something of what feeds my spirit? If they asked me to sweep the snow away from the back door, would I do it, and without expectation of reward?

For gnome-research, see section 3 of ‘Man as a Symphony of the Creative Word’ by Rudolf Steiner.