Winter is here now, both meteorological (using the average temperature of the months) and astronomical (coinciding with the winter solstice), and so the garden sleeps.
Bare branches reach toward the winter sky
Buds hibernate as the cold hours fly
Bulbs send out green shoots to test the air
Biding time ’til spring is here
While the garden slumbers the gardener plans and prepares for spring: scrutinising seed packets to see what’s left over and can be used next year, checking notes to remind myself of this year’s successes or failures, identifying gaps and gluts in the harvests. Time then to curl up in the sunroom, enjoy the pale winter sunshine with a cup of tea, and peruse the seed catalogues that have been waiting patiently for my attention.
The Winter Solstice on the 21st marks some key events: the shortest day of the year, the longest night, the brightest full moon and the Great Conjunction — when the 2 largest planets in our Solar System come together in the night’s sky. This year’s occurrence is the closest Great Conjunction in 397 years with the planets seeming to be one bright “Christmas Star”. In the ancient calendar the winter solstice marks the start of Yule, a festival to commemorate the return of the sun as the daylight hours begin to stretch. As part of the celebrations, evergreen foliage is brought into homes to symbolise hope for the year to come and rejoice in the continuity of life and nature.
I venture out into the cold, dank day to collect trimmings from the lane; holly, ivy, yew, pinecones and snowberries, to twist into a Christmas Wreath. Almost all of the holly berries have gone now, eaten by the hungry birds, but I manage to find a few for my decorations. No need to feel guilty of depriving my feathered friends — there’s plenty for them to feast on in my garden. Under the boughs of the cherry tree bird feeders dangle and dance in the chilly breeze. Packed with nuts and seeds they entice a multitude of our native winter birds to gather in the branches, jostling for position ready to pick up their preferred titbit.
This time of year our native birds are joined by their cousins from Europe who are attracted to our (relatively) warmer climate! The most impressive of these is the annual starling migration. In the evening, just before sunset, they congregate in flocks numbering tens of thousands to roost for the night. These gatherings are called murmurations, a word that perfectly describes the rustle of thousands of pairs of wings, reaching their peak in December and January. The National Geographic have a wonderful video of the phenomenon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4f_1_r80RY
Perhaps this natural event was the inspiration for this year’s New Year celebrations. In a time when we were unable to gather in large numbers ourselves, countries across the world added spectacular three-dimensional drone displays to the more traditional firework shows.
As we endure through this extraordinary year and look forward to better days I am reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck:
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
Here’s to a more settled 2021.