Lying Fallow – On Seasons and Creativity
Growing up, I lived in a little fishing town in Alaska. Season is a very important thing in Alaska, perhaps the most important thing. It is present in everything we do, because in any part of that wild, often unforgiving country, there are times when simply surviving in the face of the omnipresent forces of nature is all we can do. This isn’t the hyperbole it may seem to be. Even with microwaves, TV, and modern medicine, survival—both physical and emotional—is a very real and conscious concern.
I lived above the arctic circle for a time when I was very young, on the western coast. We were kissing cousins with Siberia, linked by the often frozen Chukchi Sea. Up there, people behaved more like animals than humans—and I don’t mean this as any sort of a moral judgment. Winters were long and bone-aching, and sometimes you found yourself shut up inside some tiny dwelling for days or weeks on end. People seemed to hibernate, the way bears do, battening down the hatches and waiting for life to return.
Break-up, the few weeks in spring when the temperature finally allowed the frozen ocean to fragment into vast, floating islands, was a time of almost feverish activity. The sun (which for a time during the winter did not rise at all) was suddenly brilliant and ever-present. In order to get a decent nap during the summer, we often resorted to what we called ‘arctic curtains’: aluminum foil.
Even with a hefty stock of Reynolds Wrap, people barely sleep at all during the summer. During the season’s height, the evening sun would dip low toward the horizon and just flirt with it, lingering the way lovers do. Then it would rise again, leaving us for weeks without a single true nightfall.
I don’t believe people are meant to live that way. Those who make their lives under such conditions are truly hardy, in more than a physical sense. Our circadian rhythms are integral parts of our psyche, affecting both physical and mental health. There are some, including myself, that simply cannot thrive in the arctic.
Everything that must be done in Alaska is done during the summer months. The activity is brief and brilliant, like the flash of gunpowder put to flame. In the little town where I spent most of my first twenty years, many of the residents depended on the salmon runs that would flood the surrounding ocean, working their way up creeks and streams as summer drew to a close.
There was a small window in which most of these people made the living that would sustain them for the rest of the year. With the eventual fading of summer, winter would come, often skipping autumn altogether. The fishing would dry up, and logging would come to a halt as already difficult terrain became impassable. Wildlife would go into hibernation, or move south. Like the proverbial grasshopper, anyone who had spent their summer idle would find themselves hard-pressed when the season changed.
Since then, I have spent many years in farm country. The rhythm here is very different, but even so far from the sweet, volatile wilderness of my youth, everything moves in cycles. Crops are planted, tended, and harvested, and then the fields lie fallow for a time. No part of the rotation can be omitted without disrupting the whole.
As I grow older, a broadening perspective allows me to recognize my own internal seasonal cycles. There is a very pronounced rhythm to my bouts of creativity. I love to draw, and have at one time or another spent nearly every waking moment for weeks on end with a pencil in hand. Other times, I have gone for months without drawing so much as a stick figure. The same applies to my love for writing, and my natural attraction to music. My life becomes very interesting when the ‘summer season’ of all three of these things fall together. Those are the times when it seems that there are hardly enough hours in the day.
Other times, all of my creative outlets will lie fallow at once, and this can be immensely frustrating. As I continue to learn myself (something I’ve realized is possibly as vital to creativity as the artistic skills themselves) I’ve come to accept the necessity of those dormant periods.
Those of us who are creatively inclined are often very inwardly focused. Rather than focusing on the stimulation of senses—those things which occur externally—we are fascinated by the interpretation of that stimuli—the product of the senses, having been filtered through our own unique lenses. Memory and experience allow us to recycle those things, experimenting with our “filtration system” and the varied end results we produce. We can even “borrow” material from others through their creative products: books, art, music, film, etc. Being so caught up in that internal process, sometimes it’s easy to forget the importance of acquiring fresh material.
When I find myself in the middle of one of those dormant periods, I have realized that I can either stew in my own pent, blank-paper frustration, or I can consciously force myself outward and use that time to refresh the stores. I don’t think that anyone can ever become truly great at a creative pursuit until they learn how to make use of every season, not only creating, but stopping to truly take in those things around them.
I think it is often fear that prevents us from allowing our creative seasons to follow their natural cycle—fear that if we let them go, they may not come around again. It takes a great deal of faith to make what we can of the summer, and then pull in the nets and bring the boats home, trusting our preparations to last us the winter. And then, when break-up comes, life will return, and new things will grow again.