When the year is fading fast and there’s little growth to see, I’m not impressed to find Hart’s Tongue sticking out at me. It only highlights the largely bare soil that reminds of all that’s been lost to the seasons’ sorrowful turning and the bitter biting frost. Another day I’d laugh to see its silly bleurgh but not while I’m reflecting on all I’ve left behind this year. For I’m already tongue-tied, groping for words and deeper meanings, and am simply not in the mood for plants that are so cavalier with others’ feelings.
The wind chill has iced the air to several degrees below and it takes an age to layer up before I dare to go outside and brave the cold that pierces my thick coat and the dense woollen scarf that’s woven round my throat. I look at the tiny birds and shudder at their miniature forms before I remember their fluffing up is the model for all my warm. My down coat here and duvet at home mimic their heating system, layering up feathers and body-warmed-air in eider-inspired wisdom. I reappraise my view and imagine the birds looking back at me, assessing my futile attempts to keep warm rather pitifully, cosily inhabiting pom-pom poses of impressive winter adaptations, and rolling their eyes at my insufficient, knock-off clothing contraptions.
Deep into the twelve days of Christmas, but before New Year starts to beckon, is the best time to try hibernation, at least that is what I reckon. When we’ve posted and given and shared, and the feasting is feasted and done, there’s just about time to curl tightly up before life demands to be re-begun. This is the time to imagine you’re a creature such as a hedgehog or dormouse snuggling down for continuous naps inside a comfy, cosy house. There’ll be plenty of time to explore the wild during twelve months of fast coming year, so just for now, let’s ignore all that wow, and stay sleeping and snoozing right here.
There’s been no snow in the valley to whiten our Christmas, but there on the tops, glistening bright in the distance, a flurry of fine icing has been liberally spilled, crafting impromptu Christmas cakes out of the hills. It’s like it’s been arranged to lure me up to the heights in search of ever elusive Narnian delights. Whether planned or spontaneous, the results are the same, I can’t beat Winter when it plays this kind of game. I’ll have to respond by ascending to the drifts to receive the promised crunch and swift spirit lifts that hover on horizons where cloud and cover meet. Yes, until I obey this summons, I’m doomed to itchy feet. But for now I take another piece of Turkish delight, mix up frothy hot chocolate, and everything’s all right. There’s more than one way to re-live my favourite story – though dwelling in White Witch world misapplies the allegory!
After a day celebrating inside with copious quantities of feasting, it’s good to exchange crisp fresh air for the fug of central heating. The paths and fields are full of similarly replete neighbours walking off the excesses of yesterday’s fine, rich flavours; enjoying clearing their heads and some gentle exercise following the certain peril of indulging bigger-than-stomach eyes. We catch up on each others’ Christmases, and who ate most roasts at lunch before each completing our circuits, and returning to Boxing Day brunch!
On the first day of Christmas, my friend Sally received… a cuckoo in a Gabonese tree! She can see where he is, and track his odyssey… on a website for ornithology. He was here till July, when he left England behind… to fly several thousand miles. France, Spain, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria – an impressive global traveller. He flew alone that far with no compass and no map… how on earth did he manage that? Of all the migrations I’ve ever come across… Sally’s sponsored cuckoo must come out top!
Watching for the star to shine the way again, watching over sheep in the cold night rain, watching for the silhouette of Bethlehem’s gate, watching for dusk to dawn tomorrow’s date.
Riding across distant deserts to purposefully seek a King, sitting out late on the hills, interrupted as angels sing, labouring next to animals for the transformation of everything, walking by the river, wondering what gift I can bring.
All the world caught up in backdrop to the story, nothing too normal to be a stage set for glory, nature tuned to prelude in prophetic preparatory for one tiny infant to rewrite the whole of history.
The branches are birdless, I can see because they’re bare, but still insistent birdsong trills its trebles through the air. I’m not in a theme park with camouflaged speakers but it still seems I must be hearing pre-recorded cheepers. Where are they hiding in the dense twiggy hedges? Why don’t they show themselves and at least take the credit for brightening the whitening dreary of this day with their constant concert of first-class cabaret?
Whenever I see a hole in a birch or beech or oak, I just can’t help imagining miniature fairy folk. I’m delighted animals and birds find shelter in wood, but no matter how hard I try, it’s just simply no good, they are never what I picture when I see potential homes carved out of the middle of something that is grown. I don’t think I’ll ever reach a ‘pragmatic’ age – to mature past make-believe was not how I was made!
This is the turning point, light will soon seize the upper hand, lengthening and strengthening its daily winning stand. Minutes more each day now in a slow, quiet ticking gain, inching us closer to warm despite cold, bleak refrains. But on this final darkening day, Weather has joined the losing side, shrouding the morning in dismal, helping the southerning sun to hide. If I didn’t know the science, or the date, or the hope of all ahead, I might be tempted by the gloom to surrender to creeping dread. But instead I fix on the promise of change and chivvy myself to rally, whatever my senses say, Spring is about to start her tally. In a few more weeks for sure now, I will wake to morning light, and my treasured late afternoons will no longer belong to the night.
Now the trees are stripped back, it’s easier to see the antics of Spider-Bird as he ascends trunks vertically. I believe he has super powers to so conquer gravity whatever experts conclude about the design of his feet. I love to watch him spiral up, following his helical path, as he forages for the bugs he resembles, hidden in the bark. I’ll never tire of marvelling at his Herculean hops or his sudden daredevil descents, when he abruptly stops. I think he deserves a flashier suit, more befitting an action man, but I suspect his very blending in is just part of his master plan to dominate the creeping world by beating them all at their game, which is perhaps also why he usually assumes a pedestrian name. But I will not call him ‘Treecreeper’ as it so woefully understates the brilliant thrill of wonder he miraculously creates.
Other people can seek perfect powder at Val d’Isère or hurtle down the Matterhorn in crisp Swiss alpine air. But I don’t see the need to spend a fortune on the slopes, no, slithering close to home is where I’m pinning all my hopes. I won’t need to hire or buy any smart, specialist equipment to experience the thrills of sliding and speeding fulfilment. Instead, I’ll head for the muddy fields of glorious Nidderdale, which, at this time of year, never disappoint or fail to offer up the chance to chase a hazardous black run, and enjoy the plummeting high of downright dangerous fun. Never mind watching the forecast for news of snow and ice, the quagmire readily waiting will more than adequately suffice. Here I can still break my leg, but it’s absolutely free, yes, budget Yorkshire skiing is the Winter sport for me!
It seems our little Jenny wren isn’t the only bird intent on replacing someone’s Christmas tree angel during this Advent. Last night, a sparrowhawk in Scotland made the evening news for coming up with a full, festive angel-replacement ruse. She waited till her target opened the back door nice and wide, then took her envied chance to relocate herself inside. She placed herself, happily, on top of the Christmas tree, fancying herself the pinnacle of all its glittering finery. Eventually experts came to help, and the bird was safely released, no doubt she was far from impressed though, to miss the 25th’s feast!
The leaves are all long gone now, so what is all this gold that suddenly and sun-fully is warming up the cold? The wooded hills burn again with bronze and copper fire as the twigs take their turn to shine with colours of desire. And these newly ochred acres, coloured in by low sunlight are like a little second Autumn that resurrects the fallen bright. My spirit is touched by the low light too, swelling to gleams and glows as it’s polished and uplit into uplift by reprising October shows.
When my boots are covered in mud and the path is oozing goo, I like to re-imagine the slime I’m sliding and squelching through as something far more appealing, and splendidly appetising, such as Mississippi mud pie or Yule log with rich, thick icing. Of course it increases Winter cravings when I fixate like this on chocolate, so perhaps I should always be prepared by having some in my pocket. For if I arranged things in this way, I’m sure that would compensate for wading through such a sticky mess and getting so thoroughly caked.
There is a little Jenny Wren who bravely leaves her huddle, and all the warmth that is her own whenever her chime cuddles, to perch on top of the terrace conifer and directly stare at the angel on our Christmas tree as if wishing she was there, trimmed in golden plumage with fallen stars at her feet, glittering in the twinkling and basking in the heat of seeming sunshine feathers ruffling in the grate, dancing on and on to conquer the dark and late. I call her the Christmas bird and imagine a full backstory where she longs to come inside and claim the angel’s glory, but learns in time it’s only fabric and can neither sing nor fly, and for all its glorious glamour will soon have to say goodbye, when Twelfth Night passes and it’s boxed up and put away, never to feel the air in it’s wings or the real sun’s stroking rays. Then I watch my Jenny Wren take off with a new sense of vision, as if reconciled to her one wild life and at peace with her decision.
There is no snow yet to smile at, but there are snowberries covering the branches of Symphoricarpos albus at Wysing – like little Winter winks suggesting more is on the way. So be patient, and perhaps, just perhaps, every bush and tree will soon bloom bright white for Christmas.
People think, in the countryside, you’ll always find more, but I confess I still miss the city sights I used to see before when my friends lived in Leeds at Foxcroft Mount and I honestly met more foxes than I could count. Each would slink along boldly with an almost feline grace, at surprising odds with the habit of then sticking its face in any rubbish it could rootle through to find choice fare, before looking up to fix on you with a nonchalant stare. It’s true, now we’re in Nidderdale, we are spoilt with sightings – kingfishers, otters, stoats, hares and myriad more to delight in – but I haven’t seen a single fox since we’ve all moved out here, and I do often wish one would magically appear with its burnished bright coat glinting in the moon, blessing me breathless with beauty even as it leaves too soon.
Every day the letter box resounds with a merry little crash as Christmas cards from far flung friends drop in on the welcome mat. Many depict idealised versions of crisp white winter scenes with the miniature man in red, resplendent against lush evergreens. His beak is usually open in song, as if carolling Christmas cheer, but it’s far more likely he’s really shouting, “get away from here!” For robins are feisty and fierce, defending their patches for all they’re worth, and are the most unlikely characters to be singing of ‘peace on earth’! It’s not surprising they’re romanticised when they perfectly fit Yuletide aesthetics, but you have to laugh when you realise they’re chirping the equivalent of expletives… I’m not suggesting robins should relinquish their role as chief festive bird, but just that we laugh a little at ourselves for being so quaintly absurd.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and everything I miss when the world around me shivers and the sun shuns to kiss the hedgerows and the hillsides with its full bodied rays, holding back its warmth and putting in part-time days.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and all the flowers that shone, but woke again this morning to find every petal gone, and only hardened earth in their place so bleak and bare, as if I’d only imagined there were ever colours there.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and all that is to come on the other side of Winter when Spring has fully sprung; when the weary world has once again turned and changed and spun – and I saw myself dancing in what is yet to be begun.
Snow is the stuff of winter legends, elusive and long anticipated. And its warmer sibling rain is usually at least tolerated – after all, it’s always good for the plants and in heatwaves achieves celebrity status – it’s only when it drenches on and on that we long for a brief hiatus. But spare a thought for the middle child, wanted by no one and nothing at all. Yes, everyone moans and groans when sleet decides to fall. It’s a byword for disappointment, close the door on it, keep it away, “why can’t you just be snow?” we complain to it in dismay. To be fair it soaks to the bone, and inflicts an icy chill, with none of the beauty or fun that gives snow its superior thrill. But should it really be treated as such a social outcast? Do we always have to greet it with nothing but lambast? I admit I am struggling to find attributes to positively celebrate but perhaps I can still summon some kind of compassion to commiserate with the endless cold shoulders it experiences from us all, and resolve to be a bit more polite next time it comes to call.
Why does it cause such extreme delight when we bring various elements of nature inside? Cut flowers in the kitchen spreading scent through the air, animals scampering about, creating havoc everywhere! Pot plants on the landing, blooming courtesy of the heating, all bring a sense of the great outdoors (while only slightly cheating). And the the pinnacle of it all, I’m sure you must agree, that moment each December when we bring inside a tree. We move the furniture over, squeeze past branches every day, but exclaim “no it absolutely isn’t even slightly in the way!” We add to our living room grove by bringing the tree some company, bedecking every remaining surface with mistletoe and holly. And nothing else we buy or make can really quite compete with the ever-greens and berry reds we string out and spin in wreaths. Is there something deep within me that half longs to live outside? Even though I’m so far beyond even trying to acclimatise to life really and truly lived underneath a tree – that would be too much of getting inside nature for me!
Searching, stretching, snipping the best branches and sprigs, bravely capturing holly despite her fierce, persistent pricks. Twisting, turning, weaving all the foliage into place, working with its eccentricities to shape something uniquely homemade. This year I use jasmine vines to form my basic hoop, and I can’t quite believe just how well they weave and loop. Strange that I’m amazed by this, and by using just one piece of string, when these extraordinary climbers are used to winding round anything. So I realise all I’m doing now, as I braid in variegated ivy, is reuniting old friends and imitating their mastery. A little bit of gold dust and my work is near completing, my hands are scratched and cold, but my heart is warmed by wreathing.
All across the field, like dot to dot puzzles, are the hilly remains of moles’ secret bustles. If only they were numbered, we would be able to chart the lines they have tunnelled in their underground art. Then we could perceive what they’re drawing below, but alas it’s all a muddle, so we will never know what masterpieces they’re making out of all that soil, and so most people conclude that all they do is spoil the smooth green turf that is so highly prized, negating their creating, and seeking their demise. But I suggest their work is perhaps misunderstood, it’s not necessarily fly-tipping, it might be rather good. Just because it’s abstract and a little hard to fathom, doesn’t mean it’s not deserving of a bigger fandom. So let’s hear it for the moles and their unconventional school, they’re not the first artists to break a few rules!
The first frost is soft, a subtle hint of glint on glistening gables that catches the morning light. But out in the fields there’s more to find, hidden here and there on the ground, as if Jack’s little sister has been practising her art like a precocious apprentice; running odd blades of grass through her icy fingers and learning to lace a leaf with sparkling glitter thread. I smile at these small sugared touches, appreciating their delicate shine and their tiny perfect prefiguring of the hoar frosts that will follow in time.
It’s only ever the female holly that treats December as one long jolly, dolling herself up from head to toe, trying to outshine the mistletoe. Cherry red lipstick on bright berry lips upstages even the remaining rosehips. But can you blame her when she knows she’s going to visit so many homes, and as she struggles with witty repartee, how else will she dazzle at every party? The lady in red knows this is her time and stealing the show is hardly a crime. She’s the belle of the ball but look, don’t touch – hugging holly close hurts far too much!
There’s something about Winter that’s pale – like it’s caught its own chill and shows it in washed out skies of bleached-bleary skin peeking out between thick duvet clouds. Its hues are quiet and withdrawn – muted, muffled, scarce – as if it’s shy, or somehow reluctant to be defined by anything except absence. But even in its half-hearted light, it still has hidden beauty to bestow if you’re willing to go on a quest to seek and see it up close. So be the one to make the move, pursue friendship with its wary ways, and you’ll find underneath all that white, weary bluster, Winter will often respond by blushing to sudden colour.
I know it was calculated planning that led our Advents to fall in December’s darkening nights. But I am glad of it all. For Winter draws us to waiting, waiting for growth and light. So why on earth not remember waiting for the coming Christ? The trees are fasting their colours, they’ve shed all their crowns at his feet, and I study their bold emptiness as I wait for the strength to seek. The wind carols lyrics of longing, the night draws close to see the watching candles all lit for a man from Galilee. He too found meaning in nature, shared pictorial lessons of wild to parable profound promises with the sage simplicity of a child. So I turn my heart’s full attention to listen and quietly look at the Winter world around me as it opens his truth like a book.