Tag Archives: winter

Resources for connecting with nature

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.


Flowers in the ice

This point in January often combines the first signs of spring with some of the most intense manifestations of winter. And so we get flowers in ice.

Yesterday I noticed that the hazel catkins are opening. They’ve gone from small, tight green potential to open, yellow and active. The alder trees have catkins on too, and the tips of their branches are slightly reddened by the presence of those flowers. Trees have male and female (from our perspective) catkins. If you’re new to all this, have a look at this article – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/12/which-trees-have-catkins-and-how-to-tell-them-apart/

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.


Time outside time

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.


Seasonal Cold

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.


Sliding into winter

Over the last few days, there have been heavy frosts, and ice on the ground at night where I live. For me, this means winter is definitely here. It’s a localised definition. There are parts of the UK that have already had some snow – but, down in the balmy south west of the country, it’s possible to go a whole winter and not see any. What winter means varies a lot depending on where you are.

I become very aware of my body in these conditions. My balance – or lack of it. How readily my hands and feet go numb in the cold. I also note that I’m doing a bit better this year on both of these – I’m less panicked by slippery ground, and I’m not having quite the same degree of circulation problems. There’s only been one significant change in my life since last winter and that’s the Tai Chi, so it could be that both shifts relate to that. I think it has improved my balance. It’s given me body knowledge about ways of walking carefully so I can do that without having to over-think it. I was told it might improve my circulation, and this is the first evidence this could be happening.

How we experience the seasons combines body and location, health, affluence, resources – it can be incredibly revealing. What’s easy often goes unnoticed, so if winter is easy for you it may be worth spending some time with that and asking why.


Shades of Winter

I’ve never really paid attention to the shift from autumn to winter before. I don’t like the winter, so usually I’m trying not to engage with it. This year, being better resourced I’m more able to cope, and trying to change my relationship with this time of year.

I’m not sure what marks the edge between these seasons. The first frosts were some time ago. The leaves are still on the trees. The nights are long, and it is cold. I need my winter coat most of the time when I go outside now. I need thick socks in my boots and heavy gloves and still I struggle to stop my hands and feet going numb. This is more about my body than the temperature.

Today there is sun, and the colours on the trees are pronounced so it feels like autumn. Yesterday was cold and grey, and I was more conscious of where the trees are bare, and it felt like winter.

We’re not into frosty or frozen ground yet. I haven’t had to break out my microspikes. As someone with poor balance and a lot of anxiety, slippery surfaces are a seasonal nightmare. I put fell-runners crampons on my boots, and those keep me safe and radically reduce the fear. The point at which those come out is definitely winter. Which is a useless measure for those wet and grey winters where frost and ice are never really a thing.

I’ve spent most of my life measuring winter in terms of discomfort. I know this is the reality for many other people. As I work on changing my relationship, I’m conscious of the shift from insufficiency towards privilege.


Returning to the Earth

If you live with deciduous trees, then late autumn is a time of shifting energy. When there are buds, leaves and other growth, trees are very sky orientated. Being amongst trees will tend to take your attention up into the canopy. What you see of trees from a distance will be dominated by their furthest reaches into the air. In summer, leaves are drawing energy from the sun, the tree is interacting with this energy in very literal ways.

Once the leaves start falling, that process will take your attention downwards. That might be in watching leaves come from the treetops and head for the soil. If you walk in fallen leaves, then the sound and texture of them may draw your attention downwards. Also, given how good fallen leaves are at hiding surprise poo, puddles and potholes looking down carefully is often a good idea! As the leaves come down, energy from the tree – energy that was in the sky – held in leaves grown from sunlight – is returning to the earth, where that energy will be released into the soil.

Winter exposes the roots. With undergrowth tending to die back, it can be a good deal easier to see the base of a tree in winter. Again, this shift tends to draw our attention and we may become more aware of trees as rooted beings, going down deep into the soil.

Autumn tends to be fungus season. In woodland this means that we get to see something of the life beneath the soil. Fungi live in vast networks, interacting with tree roots. Much of the life of a wood happens beneath the surface, where we can’t see it. The appearance of fungi in the autumn is a reminder of what’s there all year round. It’s easier to think about things and be aware of them when there’s some more tangible sign of them, and the fungi give us that.

It’s normal to talk about life pulling down into the Earth during the winter, but important to have a more specific awareness of what that means. Tree life certainly is more earth orientated at this time of year. Each living thing responds to the seasons in its own way. For the migrating swans, early winter is all about the skies and making huge journeys guided by the stars. For amphibians, the season can be all about retreating into water to hibernate. There is no one single, simple energy narrative for any given season.


Closing the windows – a seasonal thing

I always hold on as long as possible, but there will come a morning (it came yesterday) when the night was too cold and I have to admit I can’t have the windows open any more. It’s not a great point in the year. Having the windows open at night means being able to hear running water, owls, and sometimes other wildlife really easily.  Closing the windows is a recognition that winter is coming, and I’ve never much liked winter.

During the warmer part of the year, open windows make my home fairly permeable. The sounds of nature come in. Blackbird song at twilight, the dawn chorus, sounds of wind and leaves. Even when I’m indoors I can feel quite connected in this way. Once the windows are shut it is far harder to hear the owls at night. Subtler sounds are lost entirely.

In previous years, closing the windows has marked the start of a whole host of problems. Condensation in cold dwellings – some that have been hard to heat, times when being warm enough to avoid it was unaffordable. Condensation leading to the dampness of everything and the difficulty of keeping stuff dry, and the ongoing battle to keep black mould out of the equation. Or to control it. Or finding it’s grown somewhere in secret and is out of control. One very old house I lived in blossomed with a vast profusion of mould growths as soon as the windows were shut, and I could not get that under control no matter what I did.

Shutting the windows is less of a problem now that I have and can afford to run a small de-humidifier at night. It warms the flat slightly, dries the laundry in wet weather, and keeps the condensation and mould at bay. It’s a neat bit of kit, and using it, I will likely go some time before I’ll need to put the heating on as well.

Damp is more of a problem when you live in small spaces. The more cramped you are, the more stuff is squeezed into spaces not suitable for it, the more people there are in relation to the space, the less air movement there is, the more moisture people are breathing out – these things combine to make winter moister. They are things that go with poverty, with over-crowding and not being able to afford heating or a dehumidifier. Too many people are heading into these conditions as the year turns. You choose whether to be cold, and somewhat damp, or a bit less cold and more damp – neither way is a win. An open window on a cold night will still leave your clothes damp in the morning, especially if you don’t have a wardrobe.

When there’s space, ventilation, money for heating, when you can easily dry out your home, this time of year is fine. For many people, closing the windows means you are just choosing which miserable and unhealthy situation you find most bearable. One of the problems with privilege is how invisible it is to the people who have always had it. If you’re enjoying that cosy autumn feel with your fluffy socks and pumpkin spice everything, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t go that way for everyone. Don’t call people killjoys or otherwise put them down for struggling with the shift towards winter. It’s not a Pagan-fail to struggle with this time of year if it causes you real issues.


Sky through branches

Most of the leaves are off the trees now in the area where I live. One of the more noticeable features of early winter, when there’s no weather drama, comes from this change. Winter is perhaps most easily noticed in terms of cold, storms, frost, snow and so forth, but British winters often aren’t that dramatic. Engaging with the season means noticing what else is going on.

With the leaves down, sky appears where, previously in the year I could not see much sky. The view from the window I sit in when working is dominated by trees. In the summer, my view is mostly leaves. However, I can now see a lot more sky. This can be especially good around sunsets, and sometimes I see the moon through the bare branches.

When I’m walking at this time of year, views become available to me that I just can’t see in summer. Seasonal shifts have a significant impact on my relationship with the land. In some ways, winter can be more expansive, with more sky, bigger horizons, more views into the distance. It’s curious because we tend to associate winter with drawing in, looking inwards and being more interior with spiritual practices. However, it is the time when we might most readily see further, and see more. The bones of the land appear without the leaves to cover them.


Winds from the east

It is the winds from the east, and the north east, which bring winter where I live. Blowing in from Siberia and the Arctic, these winds also bring migrating swans. Bewick swans spend the summer on the Russian tundra, where they raise their young. They migrate to the UK for the winter, flying at night, using the stars for guidance. Young swans make their first journey with parents so as to learn how to do it. There’s more information here – https://www.wwt.org.uk/conservation/saving-wetlands-and-wildlife/saving-wildlife/science-and-action/uk-species/bewicks-swan/

For about three years, I lived in Slimbridge, and then on the canal in the vicinity of Slimbridge – the location of the first Wildlife and Wetland Trust site whose link I shared above. This site was established as a reserve by Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic) because of the migrating swans. They come to feed on the banks of the Severn during the winter.

While I was living in the village, an older neighbour told me how, when he was a child, the swans would come in incredible numbers and you’d see them flying round the church spire. Swan numbers, like pretty much everything else in the natural world, have been dwindling. It’s now rare to see a migrating swan coming in on a wind from the east early in the morning. It’s happened to me a few times now, and it’s an experience I feel deeply grateful for.

The coming of these winds marks a turn towards colder weather. When it happens varies – the first swan this year showed up in October. Most are coming in now. The colder the weather, the more swans come to Slimbridge – there are other sites migrating swans go to, but the harsher the winter, the further south they head.

Even though I no longer live in Slimbridge and no longer see the bewicks grazing in the fields, they are very much on my mind when the winds come. And this year, I’ve seen several pairs of swans coming in over the hills in the early morning, no doubt heading towards the river.