Fieldnotes, December 2021: Notes on wintering, on the longest night
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Yesterday was the winter solstice. Last night, when it was late and dark and I felt myself buzzing with thoughts, I sat down to write the last blog of the year. It felt like the right moment. I hope that whatever you're doing right now, you can set some time aside, make yourself a cup of tea, find a cosy and quiet nook, light a candle, and read our notes on 'wintering'; a worthwhile and healing act and by far one of my favourite seasonal pursuits.
To 'winter' is to spend the season in one place, particularly in birds who migrate. It can be a change in habit that is necessitated by the season, deer wintering on bark for instance. It can also mean to lodge, keep, or care for during the winter such as wintering animals in a stable. For me, wintering is to slow down, rest and recoup energy, to enjoy darkness, and embrace the outdoors no matter the weather.
For the past few weeks, I have been watching geese arrive in the surrounding fields, forming moving sutures across the sky but always in some recognisable 'V'. It's a comforting and familiar sight, their blaring hoots dominating the sky. I wonder to myself, how do they know when it's time? How do they find the way? Once the conditions become tough and the food is scarce, does their physical compass and internal clockwork compel them to move? I am fascinated by the innate behaviours that do not have to be learned or practiced. They are within. I wonder about my own. In turn, I try to tap into my own instincts, to get underneath and within how winter feels to me. I allow myself to be guided by the shorter daylight hours and the long, drawn-out nights.
As I open the door each morning, a cool air billows in and mingles with the warmth of the house. I allow it to circulate around me before closing the door. As I venture out to see crystallised frost patterns on my car windscreen, I feel every intake of breath containing a mouthful of chill that works its way into the chest, defying the warmth of the body. I deliberately swallow mouthfuls of the cold air, allowing winter to enter into my body breath by breath. Around the farm, all the plants have dried to a biscuit beige and brown. They rustle in the wind like a maraca. Birds flit and rummage in a flattened, decaying undergrowth fleeing quickly as if I would steal the precious finds from their beaks. As I plant bulbs, I am both thrust into a future of anticipation and a nostalgia of the last time I experienced a tulip or a narcissi or an anemone. A feeling akin to homesickness, almost.
Winter is transformation. It is wonder. And if you look past its gruffness and bite, lies a liminal space which is restful and soothing. An essential space that asks us to be more kind and careful with our energies. At this time of year, I feel myself settling. It feels very physical. Perhaps like the geese, I know exactly what I need. I feel as if the year has been a vigorously shaken snow globe that has been finally set down. Especially this year. The flurry of flakes gently and slowly swaying downwards. Modern life has been built to alleviate us from the darkness of this time of year; lamps, phones, streetlights, televisions, throbbing, always pulsing an inescapable light, keeping us alert and interfering with our true instincts for darkness. We have been conditioned to wait for better times, to think of winter as a lesser season we need to 'get through until something better'. But actually we need it. What if we could allow ourselves to enjoy winter, sit for a while in the darkness, allow our thoughts to settle, rest awhile, read more, sleep more... After all our lives are not so linear, we ourselves have seasons when we flourish and seasons when we wither. So why not do it in time with the seasons. You have to learn to rest in the darkest moments in order to enjoy the best golden displays of the sun. I always enjoy the skeletal architecture of trees once they have shed their leaves. If you look closely it isn't a dead thing that is revealed, it is a new thing. Every bud is formed and already in place, neat and expectant, ready to flourish when the time is right. I like to sit in the dark alone before bed without a phone, alone with my thoughts, keeping watch from a window or simply closing my eyes and experiencing a true blackness behind the sockets. Any fears of the dark, I welcome them, taking back the night as a time for reflection and contemplation. A watch. I find this especially meaningful on Christmas Eve when everyone has gone to bed. I am drawn to moments like this, and often within these moments, I think it's a wonder to be here at all.
The winter solstice is an invisible point of the year that resides in the dark. When either of earth's poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun, a twice yearly seesaw, once in each hemisphere. In the North, now it is our turn, lasting only for this moment. We have turned the year. The longest night of the year has past, an elongated twilight that is perfect for quietude and reflection. From here, the waning of the daylight hours is reversed and slowly the light begins to grow again. It won't be long until we see snowdrops and daffodils. This morning, I stood in the garden and watched the light coming in. As it gathered pace, everything started to stir. The robin started up its song right on cue as the sky turned blue. The world is bright again. The year begins again.
Enjoy this moment in the dark. We will see you again in the light before long,