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Blog post about winter and art

Art – Winter’s Antidote- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


A Story About Bears


As many of you who follow this blog know, Nancy and Bruce recently went on a hike through the High Sierra, a singular realm of white granite, azure lakes, steep snowfields, and rushing streams.

One of the things that came up a lot, besides how much our legs hurt, was the issue of bears.

Nancy was very concerned about bears, clearly having been deeply influenced by the story of Goldilocks when she was a small child.

What if we’re eaten by bears?

It didn’t matter that there is no reliably reported incident of anyone every having been killed, let alone eaten, by a California black bear. (Grizzlies were rudely shown the door over a century ago)

There have been attacks, but none of them fatal, despite 15,000 bears in the mountains and millions of people visiting every year, meaning there are billions of opportunities for a person to meet a bear.

We never saw a bear.

It was almost disappointing.

Clearly they’ve all trundled up to Lake Tahoe, where there are plenty of vacation homes closed up for the winter.

Bears know that if they break in, they can spend the winter in front of the TV, eating chips and watching animal shows as well as rearranging paintings on the walls. (true story).

Why bother with hibernation when you can watch Animal Planet?

Of course, you have to figure out how to use the remote.

But we as humans don’t hibernate.

One option is to make like a bear and sit in front of the TV and eat chips, but we submit that there are better things to do with the winter season.

Especially if you’re an artist.

Darkness & Light


In the Northern Hemisphere, we are entering a dark time of year, a season that seems drab and dreary and moribund, but is paradoxically anything but.

This is a time of marshaling of energies. In the landscape, a leafless and brown terrain belies the activity that is occurring unseen and underground.

Much of the world is invisible to human eyes and must be seen by the power of thought, the magic of imagination.

Seeds in the winter ground lie quietly, not putting out roots or shoots. But they are not dead. They are silently and slowly arranging their internal structures for a future time of growth.

They listen but do not speak.

In our creative journey of growth, there are times when parts of us are like seeds


We are exploring our inner landscape, gently rearranging elements for a future time of need.

Listening to ourselves and the world around rather than speaking is important, and perhaps it is why as humans we have two ears but only one mouth.

This preparation is noble work, for without it we never germinate and grow.

I got to thinking about the remarkable nature of seeds. Not only the organic reality of them but also the analogies they inspire.

The first known use of the word seed was before the 12th century. Merriam-Webster has two definitions of the noun:

  • the grains or ripened ovules of plants used for sowing
  • the fertilized ripened ovule of a flowering plant containing an embryo and capable normally of germination to produce a new plant


As artists, writers, composers, choreographers, cinematographers, musicians and storytellers we’re continually creating new forms, just as seeds are germinating to produce new plants.


Seeds are vital to existence.

Examples of the ways we use the word seed reveal the depth of its roots within our collective psyches

  • seed of life
  • the top seed (the top seeded tennis player)
  • seed fund
  • sowing the seeds of discord
  • going to seed
  • seeds of knowledge
  • seeds of change
  • in seed form
  • the seed of an idea


A seed becomes more than itself by accessing the adjacent possible. The seeds of your next artwork live within you, waiting and ready to manifest into full blown creations.


And with this in mind, my partner Dr. Bruce Sawhill told me the following remarkable story of his experience with seeds.


Nancy Hillis-Nourishing your inner artist


Bruce’s Story


When I was five years old, I loved walking in the sun-dappled deciduous forests that abounded where I grew up in Michigan, tall oaks and maples shading a loamy and mossy forest floor.

It was like walking on a cushion of fragrant green life, my sneakers indenting the ground which sprang back up after I had passed.


I was fascinated by seeds. How could something so small become something so much more than itself?


I loved planting seeds to see the tender green sprouts push above the soil, unfurling into the light while doffing a little cap of dirt and split seed in deference to the rush of new life.

My parents played a trick on me.

One day I planted several watermelon seeds in front of the house.

Day after day I checked to see if anything would happen, diligently watering them from a paper cup.

Finally, about the time I was ready to give up, I saw a tiny cracked mound of dirt, the indicator of energies stirring beneath the surface.

The next day a watermelon sprout was there, with the two seed leaves, the cotyledons, small and green in the warm humid sunshine. These two leaves are special because they are part of the plant’s embryo, coming fully from inside the seed.

But a day or two later, the first true watermelon leaves emerged, much bigger and differently shaped from the seed leaves.





Those leaves start the process of photosynthesis, where the plant begins to relate deeply and fundamentally to the world around it.


The plant is now making itself out of sun and water and nutrients in the air and soil, rather than just unfurling what it started with.

The whole is more and different than the sum of the parts.

What is being created is not just embryo and not just air and soil, but something new and different united by process and energy.


The plant is exploring its adjacent possible, propelled by an imperative to create itself.


But here’s the trick I referred to:

While I was being fascinated by the germination of watermelon seeds, my mother had gone shopping and bought a full-size watermelon, perhaps 25 pounds (11 kilos).

Before I woke up the next morning, she placed it beside the watermelon sprout which was all of three inches high and brought it to my attention.

Imagine the shout of glee when I discovered this. My first watermelon! My, it was large.

But glee quickly gave way to suspicion.


Even to my five-year old mind, something didn’t quite add up. How could something so big materialize so fast? Why didn’t I see it coming?


As it has often been said, “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Nonetheless, we all had a good laugh when the trick was uncovered.

But I wasn’t satisfied with just one seed experiment.

On one of those walks through the woods, around a year later, I collected a pocket full of acorns. I found a patch of dirt and planted several dozen.

Oak trees are not as simple to grow as watermelon plants. Nevertheless, quite a number of oak saplings arose, even with scattered attention.

Over the next several years they became taller than I was and as thick as a broomstick. They started to crowd one another and eventually we had to do something.

With the help of my father, we transplanted them to the perimeter of the property. We planted a dozen or more of them a generous distance apart from each other, thinking of the future.

At that point they were on their own.

Over my teenage years, I was peripherally aware of the saplings becoming trees, growing and spreading, becoming as thick as my arm.

But my attention had turned to other things.

I moved away to college in California, my parents retired and sold the home, and the oak trees faded into obscurity along with the town and people I had grown up with.


I was on a journey like Odysseus, and the origin of the journey disappeared astern.


Several decades later, out in the greater world, I observed that the seeds of technology planted after World War II had become giant organisms like Apple and Google.

Along with devices that display information and provide entertainment came ways of storing vast quantities of distributed knowledge. Who could have predicted exactly how this would play out from disparate and obscure beginnings decades before?

One of my favorite of these modern technological fruits is Google Maps.


Maps are like art created from Nature. They’re beautiful in and of themselves.


One day I had the idea to explore my old home town in a virtual way, since I hadn’t been there physically in over 30 years. I found the old house, but it was hard to recognize, especially from aerial photos.

That was because the surrounding foliage was radically different, which temporarily threw off my pattern recognition.

Along one side of the old property was now a row of fifty foot tall stately oak trees, casting a rhythmic pattern of shade on the lawn underneath.

I gradually came to the realization that those were the trees that came from the acorns I had planted. Other landscaping had been removed or added, but at least some of those oak trees were still there.


As T.S. Eliot said,


We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot


This was that time.


Nancy Hillis-Nourishing your inner artist



This dark and inward looking season is a time of collecting one’s acorns and planting them.

It may be a long time before their role in your development becomes clear, but you will know it when it happens.

You are assembling the architecture of your future self


Creation has its own rhythms, its own reasons.

When it seems as if not much is happening, a great deal is bubbling under the surface.

The seeds of your next creation are germinating.

All of this takes time.

And patience.

And belief.

The belief that you are a creator. You are an artist.

Your work, your art, your life matters.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Thinking of gifts for the holidays for Artists & Creatives? Artists love our Book Series: The Art Of The Possible.

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