There were some days last week when it felt like spring. The wild garlic is coming up, there are snowdrops blooming, and the birds were singing in that way they do when they are thinking about mates, territories, nests and eggs.
Then we were down below freezing again, and there will be a few days of bitter cold. The transition from winter to spring is seldom smooth, which is one of the great challenges for everything trying to breed at this time. Start early and maybe get an advantage and time for a second brood. Or get caught by the frosts, and set back – it’s true for plants as well as creatures. Spring is a gamble, one way or another.
Often at this point in the year I am so deep in the darkness of winter that I feel out of kilter with signs of spring. This year I feel ready for spring, I crave the sun more than ever, and I am heart open to those hopeful signs of life. I too need to put out fresh leaves, unfurl a bit, work out how to make new and to come back vibrant and entirely alive.
My relationship with the cycle of the seasons is weakest at this time of year. I don’t reliably go out every day, and when I do go out it isn’t for as long and I don’t walk as far, so I don’t encounter as many wild things. But at the same time, this is a response to the season and a consequence of the nature of my own animal body.
January is a variable month – it can be freezing, it can be mild, this year it seems to be shifting between the two. For me, it always feels like an in between month. In terms of wild things, mostly what I’m looking for is how early things are that I think should be showing up in February – the snowdrops, the buds fattening on trees, the first green shoots at ground level. This year I note tree leaves already opening, primroses in bloom and other unseasonal things.
My body does badly with the cold. I am more sore, and more stiff in cold weather. I layer up, I wrap up, I do all manner of things to protect against this but even so there’s an impact. Being outside when it is very cold takes a serious toll no matter how well dressed I am. That notion that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing is fundamentally wrong if you have body issues and/or a limited budget. I can’t afford to get soaked to the skin in winter. I know that my coat cannot fend off the worst of the downpours. Sometimes, I really can’t afford to go outside much.
‘Get out into nature’ is not a universal cure-all, and sometimes smacks of ableism. Winter can be limiting, not all bodies handle it well. If we are interested in encountering nature, we have to start with how we manifest it – our bodies are nature too. Nature is not always kind or convenient, and this is true of human bodies also. It’s best not to assume anything about how the nature in a person’s body interacts with the wildness outside of it.
At this time of year, the view from my living room window is of bare branches. The sun sets behind them, late in the afternoon. Most days, I sit somewhere I can watch the changing light. It’s often one of the most colour rich moments of the day. Sometimes, the winter sky is a dramatic blue as we shift towards night time.
I’ve tried to capture something of this with these small pen drawings. I’m also trying to be more relaxed about letting the pens look like pens. I’m trying to figure out how to work with the things that pens do, rather than pushing against it, but I’ve a way to go…
One of the things I find hard about winter is the loss of colour. November is often a grey month – in the past it was normal for leaves to be off the trees by this point. Rain and fog, heavy cloud and a generally grey gloom are part of how I expect November to go, and the loss of colour always gets to me.
Writing at the end of November, I note that there are still green leaves out there, and many of the trees still bear autumn colours. We have had more of the grey days recently, and I woke this morning to fog.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is not to be persuaded by the grey that there is no point going out. There will be colour, somewhere. There will be leaves on the ground that are bright even when the branches are bare. There will be the dark reds of hawthorn berries and the purples of sloes. There will be birds. There may be breaks in the cloud and moments of sun that brighten everything. Once outside, there will at the very least be more diversity in the grey than I can see from my windows.
I find winter hard, but I try to make the best of it. I think you can honour and respect a season without having to love it. I also think it is important to treat your own emotional responses with respect rather than putting yourself under pressure to feel what you think you are supposed to feel about seasons and festivals.
I’m a very light sensitive sleeper. I have a lot of trouble sleeping when there’s light (unless a cat assists me!) and I tend to wake with the dawn. Around midsummer, this can leave me a sleep-deprived wreck if I’m not careful. For a long time now, winter has meant waking in the dark, and I’ve also found that difficult. My body is pretty clear that if there is darkness, I should be asleep, so midwinters can be… odd.
This year my son is studying for a degree course and I no longer have to deal with waking up ahead of going to school. We used to get up as a household because it is in many ways the nicer thing to do, and with a cycle ride to school, the mornings were early. In winter this has never suited me. So, this is the first winter in 18 years where there’s no alarm, or small child, and my body can do what it likes around waking up.
I find it a lot less stressful waking with the light. There’s no awful push first thing in the morning to force myself out of bed. I’m still waking fairly early, as my window faces towards the dawn, and pre-dawn light seeps in through the curtains. It feels so much gentler.
Clock time and alarm time go with industrial time. We have work and school lives that run by the clock – and there are advantages to this, but it is hard on the body. Our bodies are different, and what we need at different times of year and at different life stages can vary rather a lot. It is a wonderful thing to have some flexibility around that and to be able to let my body set the pace. Everything else this winter looks set to be challenging, so it’s helpful to have at least one thing lining up to be easier!
November can be decidedly wintery in the UK. Yesterday we had the first frost, and I thought about the September in my late teens when I camped at a folk festival and had ice on my tent. Autumns are definitely warmer than they used to be.
Frost is, without any doubt, a sign that winter is on the way. However, we’re certainly not done with autumn. Many of the trees not only still have their leaves, but those leaves have a significant amount of green on them. While it is getting colder, it isn’t all that cold most of the time – I’m still not reliably needing to have heaters on at night, and coats are not always necessary during the day.
Climate chaos is confusing. We’ve had some absolute deluges, and the heavy rain is unpredictable. As someone who mostly walks for transport, this really impacts on me. I don’t have waterproof gear that is waterproof enough to stand up to the kinds of rainstorms we’re now getting. In the colder weather, being soaked to the skin is really unpleasant. I don’t want to be trapped inside. But sometimes, it seems that a dry suit designed for water sports is about the only thing that might stand a chance of keeping the rain out.
Over the last few days I’ve started to properly notice a change in the length of the day. The evenings are opening up a bit. I’m still getting up in the dark, but I know that won’t go on for much longer.
I struggle with the short days of winter. When it starts to get dark, I get sleepy. It’s difficult to find the energy for anything much in the evenings. I am clearly the sort of creature that is supposed to hibernate. Much as I value the darkness, I definitely enjoy it more when there’s less of it!
For me, spring and lighter evenings mean more scope to get outside. I love twilight, but in the winter it’s too cold for me to be loitering about outside. There are no sheltered spaces I can use. I have no garden and no outside space of my own. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much my experiences would change if I had somewhere I could easily sit out for half an hour, wrapped in a blanket, cuddling a hot water bottle. How much access to nature depends on human resources, especially if you aren’t entirely hale and hearty.
Many of our homes and most of our urban spaces have not been built to keep us in relationship with nature. I crave permeable spaces, sheltered enough that I can be in them, open enough to the night and the sky that I can experience them. The easier it is to get warm and dry, the easier it is to chance getting cold or wet. I wonder what our living arrangements would look like if they were designed to facilitate our relationships with the wilder world, not simply to try and insulate us from it all.
Yesterday I also saw my first snowdrops of the year, some daffodils in bloom, a primrose and I’ve seen a lot of bulbs putting up leaves in the last few days.
This morning the temperature was down to minus 3, and the frost that was on the ground yesterday is still here. Puddles have become ice sheets. The mud has frozen solid. This is the most wintery it’s been this season, and yet at the same time, the first flowers are appearing. That’s normal, and I might choose to read some significance into it.
This is the time of year when I tend not to notice any seasonal shifts. Nothing much is growing. The catkins on the trees were there a month and more ago, and aren’t open yet. The first flowers should be a few weeks away. We may have moved past the solstice, but in practice I’m not feeling much return of the light – the overcast skies often negate any feeling of longer days.
Where I live, there hasn’t been much weather drama. It’s cold, but not freezing. There are no predictable patterns – the whole winter could go like this or we could get a sudden dip in temperature, frost, ice, winter storms and so forth.
It’s a time of waiting, for me. Waiting for the light to return. Waiting to see what challenges I might have to contend with. Waiting for spring. I think many wild things are waiting at this point – be that seeds in the ground, seasonal migrants, or anything else that will crack on with life changes when spring comes. Of course some creatures are already underway – deer mate in the autumn. Mammals giving birth in the spring may well be pregnant already, or pairing up. The hibernating female bats are pregnant, although those pregnancies won’t really get going until spring wakes them.
Mostly I want to hibernate too. Thankful not to be pregnant ready for the spring. I find the longer hours of darkness gives me the urge to sleep more. I’m at the same time affected by personal-seasonal changes in my own body and not sleeping well. I am out of kilter with some things, and perfectly aligned with others, and I think that’s often the way of it.
Modern Paganism tends to foreground the sun cycle as something to be in tune with. However, when you look at any season, what creates its distinct flavour and energy isn’t just the sun, but the way other living beings respond to it, and to each other. There’s always diversity. Hungry migrant birds are not in the deep sleep of winter. The owls outside my flat are active for much longer each night because the darkness is for them. There’s always something to empathise with, even when the sun cycles don’t resonate with your experiences.
The temperature often defines how I experience winter days and what I’m able to do. A milder year is likely to be wet, and while that’s no joy to be out in, the footing is safer on tarmac. In wet winters, paths that aren’t hard surfaced can become unwalkable with all the mud – which makes walking slow and hazardous. A warmer, wetter winter means more cloud and less sun, which has an impact on my body chemistry.
I can enjoy a crisp, sharp winter day – the bright blue skies and crystalline clarity. However, these tend to go with colder conditions. Icy ground is more likely to give me numb feet, running the risk of chilblains. There’s the risk of falling. My entire body will be sore to a greater degree in really cold conditions – so being out is a mixed bag. I weigh the attraction of sunlight and fresh air against the state of my body.
Of course, a warmer winter is much more easily dealt with indoors. Cold weather makes it harder to keep warm. I can afford to heat my home at the moment, but not everyone can. Being cold all the time is exhausting and if you are ill in any way, that illness will be made more miserable. It’s difficult to relax and harder to sleep when you aren’t warm enough. It will also make you hungry, and anyone choosing between heating and eating won’t have a budget for extra food.
The winter days I like most are clear and bright, but a degree or two above freezing. Enough to seem like winter without causing any problems. They’re rare, but when they come round, I treasure them.