‘Ought not winter, in allegorical designs, the rather to be represented with such things that might suggest hope than such as convey a cold and grim despair? The withered leaf, the snowflake, the hedging bill that cuts and destroys, why these? Why not rather the dear larks for one? […] Put the lark then for winter, a sign of hope, a certainty of summer. Put, too, the sheathed bud […] Put, too, the sharp needles of the green corn […] Nothing despairs but man.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Out of Doors in February’, in The Open Air (1885).
30/12/2017 When autumn approaches, I find myself thinking frequently about the season, and often in the context of oncoming winter. Sometimes these thoughts get as far as turning into writing. And yet I rarely write about winter itself. By the time winter arrives, my struggle with the changing seasons seems to have come to an end, and along with it, my imagination. Last year I bought Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, and started it before autumn had even got underway, in an effort to embrace the coming season. I did the same with the winter anthology; and yet, less than a quarter of the way through the book, I stopped reading it and didn’t pick it up again before spring arrived. Though I may yet do so for different reasons, I felt no urge to buy the spring or summer anthologies: my emotional and imaginative engagement with those seasons hardly needs encouragement.
Moving to the countryside has been a lesson in living, and learning to love, every season. I thought the lesson had been successful, because I feel more closely connected to all the seasons, and have learned to appreciate the rhythms of the year. On a conscious level, that is true. I have never loved winter so much as I do now, and I hope that every year I will inch that little bit closer to unconditional love. But unconsciously, something else is happening. I don’t mean that I find winter depressing, which the majority of the population probably does. I don’t. Rather, I have started to notice a pattern. Winter somehow gets under my skin. The part of my response to the season that I cannot control has already announced itself in no uncertain terms. Despite the aspects of it that I look forward to; despite wholeheartedly agreeing with Edward Step’s statement that ‘[e]verything has its season for display; and we cannot learn the story of the year if we only read eight or nine of its twelve chapters’ (Nature Rambles: An Introduction to Country-lore, 1930); and despite doing, as I thought, everything possible keep up my spirits – including going for regular walks in woods, fields and on the coast – I find myself feeling down, without at first noticing any connection with the season.
This year winter arrived early. In fact, the last three years, winter never really arrived at all, so perhaps strictly speaking, it can’t have arrived early; it simply arrived, several weeks before the winter solstice. The first snow fell on the last day of November, and before half of December had passed, two inches of snow lay on the ground. In the last few weeks, realising that feeling low may be an unavoidable symptom of autumn and winter with which I will have to learn to live (maybe it is some form of seasonal affective disorder), I began to watch the animals in the garden, as well as the chickens and the goats. There is no observable difference in their activity or body language between now and summer. They are playful (the goats), talkative and bright-eyed (the chickens), and generally just as enthusiastic when I let them out into the garden in the morning as they are in spring and summer – apart from a couple of days when they regarded the snow with deep suspicion and refused to go out in it, but even then they seemed perfectly happy to stay in the courtyard.
So why do I not feel the same way? Perhaps, in part, I simply have to come to terms with the fact I don’t, and that a degree of hibernation might be no bad thing. But perhaps, I have started to think, I am also overlooking something important.
I retrieved from the bookshelf my copy of Winter: an anthology for the changing seasons. One of the first extracts I read was Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s diagnosis of her own condition in winter:
‘There are animals that sleep all the winter; – I am, I believe, become one of them […] my mind has certainly been asleep all the while; and whenever I have attempted to employ it, I have felt an oppression in my head which has obliged me to desist’. (Letter to Mrs Beecroft, Stoke Newington, January 1814)
It made me smile in recognition of her predicament: a little humour can certainly make a huge difference to one’s outlook. Then I remembered a book of essays by Richard Jeffries, of which I had so far only read a few. I leafed through and found an essay called ‘Out of Doors in February’. The difference in my response to his words couldn’t have been greater: his reflections on winter (quoted above) moved me intensely. I remembered my February walk on the Isle of Wight earlier this year: a perfectly clear, sunny day with skylarks singing above my head. I remembered the little robin last winter who claimed his territory amongst the chickens and goats, and serenaded me all winter long, sometimes so quietly that I almost thought it must be another, distant, robin singing.
Something rekindled in my dormant mind. Even if I can’t entirely control my response to the season, I thought, perhaps it is time to put my imagination to work in a dedicated fashion. Jeffries’ essay gave me the idea of compiling my own winter treasure box. Though I am a week late starting, I have decided on a total of thirteen treasures, one for each week of the season. It will challenge me to keep my focus on winter’s precious gifts until spring arrives; and I might even dare to hope that, if the challenge is successful, either winter might slip into spring on the sly while I am concentrating on my task, or my list of winter treasures will have grown so long that I might wish the season would last just a little longer…
Header photo: Wormingford, winter view over the Stour valley