Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.
I resumed my winter treasures this year thinking that there were only two or three subjects I had had to leave out in 2018. But as the month of February progresses, I find, again, that I am having difficulty deciding what to include. January brought aconites and snowdrops, and the start of February saw my first violet and periwinkle sightings as well as the first blackbird, thrush and skylark songs, all within 24 hours. The mild winter has brought out the blackthorn already, as well as daffodils and early-spring-flowering plums and cherries. The hawthorn in my roadside hedge is already sprouting, and weeping willows are starting to glow green-yellow. It is easy to trick oneself into thinking March is already underway, but I have no desire to wish away this most unloved month of February. Part of the pleasure is in knowing what lies around the corner, and savouring the hints of something not yet arrived. I wouldn’t want to lose a month of anticipation; nor would I want to lose a month of calm in which to continue my slow but steady and satisfying progress on long-neglected jobs.
So, instead, I am thinking back to December and January afternoons, and choosing a topic that applies to the whole of this season of low sun: the quality of light and shadow on a sunny day. It is glorious in the morning, but the afternoon brings a special orange glow. It is the kind of oblique light chased by artists and photographers, and not easily found in summer, except at sunrise and sunset.
A little over a year ago, I completed my year of weekly ‘seasonal treasures’. I started the project as a form of self-medication: I suspected that I had some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that winter would always make me feel low, even though I had learned – consciously – to like it. Now I am not sure I was right. I wonder if it was in fact a combination of difficult circumstances for several years running that formed unconscious, bodily associations of winter with physical and emotional difficulties, and that these associations required a concerted effort to break, by replacing them with more positive ones. Whatever the problem was, my self-prescribed concoction of daily walks, a daylight lamp, more frequent social and musical engagements and, perhaps most importantly, weekly writing about highlights of the season, was more successful than I ever could have hoped.
I enjoyed the writing so much that I continued my seasonal treasures through the whole year. It wasn’t only the process of writing that had such a positive effect: it was the necessity of noticing, and dwelling on, the beauty around me, in order to choose something to write about. In fact, I ran out of weeks to include everything I wanted to. So the following year I thought I would continue, if less frequently, in order not to leave out anything important. But my intentions didn’t materialise. As time went on, I realised that without a self-imposed schedule, my more pressing writing engagement with Suffolk’s churches took over, and the seasonal writing was left by the wayside.
Monkey Chicken’s example was followed to the letter this autumn, with a Very Big Party to begin the season. I have never attempted anything so chaotic before, and have my friend Rachel to blame for her encouragement of the mad idea of a camping party. Approximately 30 adults and children came to camp in my garden for the weekend – although a few of them opted for a bedroom instead – and even more came to join us for a barbecue on Saturday lunchtime. With hot, sunny weather – no sign of autumn – live chamber music in the background for at least half the weekend, and Winnie becoming officially the Luckiest Pigeon in Suffolk by having a piece of music written especially for her by Rachel, I couldn’t have hoped for a more special start to my new decade… We were even serenaded by tawny owls after dark.
This summer has been full of excitement and activity, and, sitting in a sunny garden listening to bird song while I write, I am glad to feel it is not yet over.
With only a few small pauses between B&B bookings – all of which were occupied by visits from family and friends or short musical trips away from home – and averaging 5 concerts a month since April, I feel happy to have made it to mid-September without having to hide in a darkened room (more than once or twice, at least).
There have been so many highlights it would be hard to choose between them. One, of course, must be the many lovely people I have met and the joy with which they have shared my house, garden and creatures during their stay. Many of the other highlights are of course creature related. A kingfisher flew over my pond – I’m not sure what he was doing here as there are definitely no fish in it, but I was very happy to see him all the same – and I have seen hares in my garden almost daily. One crossed the bridge recently, which I as a result I now consider a magic bridge. Leia the chinchilla, who sadly lost her friend Solo earlier in the year, found a new friend and it only took a few days before they were snuggled up together. Malteser and Dusty the rabbits… well, cute, fluffy and funny pretty well sums them up. The goaties have, surprisingly, refrained from too much mischief this season but continue to rule the garden and the chickens with their usual self-assurance.
19/6/2019 Last time I looked it was April: I’m not sure where this spring has disappeared to. I have been willing it to rain so that the irises in my rapidly drying pond might have the chance to flower before the goats ate them all. My wishes were in vain: but somehow a few flowers managed to escape their jaws nevertheless. The rain came too late for the irises, but the vegetables and fruits are thankful, as am I, for having far less watering to do than last year. And for the absence of moral dilemmas: my water butts are being filled regularly, so the hose is rarely called for.
After a slow start with bookings, this spring has been all about B&B, vegetable gardening and music, to the neglect of my new bathroom which has been waiting several months to be painted. But that is a winter job, and it will just have to wait: I have learnt that ruthless prioritising is the only way forward in spring. Meanwhile, the vegetable beds were mended and cleared in February with the help of a friend, and I finally got round to repairing, cleaning and goat proofing the greenhouse – only two years late. So both are in full green swing, prompted and encouraged by my friend Steve, who has been passing on spare seeds and plants and acting as my vegetable growing consultant. ‘What do I do about the potatoes which have been squashed by a crow that got stuck in the vegetable enclosure?’ ‘Will my Brussel sprouts recover after having nearly all their leaves broken off?’ (The rabbits and goats were happy with their dinner after that mishap.)
Meanwhile Dusty and Malteser have been specialising in cuteness; Winnie the Wood Pigeon is as gorgeous as ever and will soon celebrate her 2nd birthday; the goats took full advantage of their one opportunity (and I shall ensure it is their last) to break into the beautifully fenced rhubarb bed and leave a scene of devastation behind them; and my new rescue chickens, Cheeky and Monkey (Monkey is below centre) – no need to say more – have settled into Crossways Farm life as though they never knew anything else.
With bed and breakfast guests from 27th December, I decided to book a short break to visit churches in the week before Christmas. It felt a little risky to book 3 nights away several weeks in advance, not knowing what the weather would be like. But, bar any blizzards, I knew that if I committed myself by paying for accommodation, I would go, and enjoy it even if the churches were freezing. And if they were really too cold, I could spend more time walking and writing instead.
So I found and booked the loft of someone’s outbuilding in Westleton, near the coast and a good area for both walking and churches. I was lucky with the weather: it was mild, with more than a fair smattering of sunshine. For the second time this autumn, however, my trip was preceded by an animal disaster which meant that I left home both with a heavy heart, angry with myself and doubting my competence, and feeling that distraction and having a break away from home would do me good.
24/12/2018 It seems only right that, having completed a year of weekly seasonal treasures, I should reflect on the reasons I began.
Rereading the introduction I wrote a year ago, I was surprised. I had almost forgotten that I planned to choose one subject for each week of winter only, and I can barely recognise the emotions I was experiencing then, so different do I feel now.
I started the project as a kind of therapy for winter, a way to help me live more in the moment and appreciate what was around me even when I was struggling, whether due to cold and dark, dealing with difficult circumstances or events, or my own inexplicable moods. I found the therapy so effective and enjoyable that I didn’t want to stop. No matter what time of year it is, there are always times when we are so bound up with our busy-ness or daily problems that we can fail to notice things in front of us; forget to be grateful for simple gifts. I found that forcing myself to stop to think and write about them was so beneficial to my mental health, regardless of how low or upbeat I was feeling, that the original purpose of the task was overtaken by a multitude of positive effects. In this way it reminds me of my church tour which I began in April last year, for just three or four vague reasons. The outcomes so far, perhaps ten times that quantity, have been beyond anything I could have imagined.
23/12/2018 It took me months to attract the first goldfinches to the garden with nyger seeds. When they did arrive, I would see one, and then have to wait several weeks to see the next one. Still, I was thrilled with the odd sighting, and wished I could tell my father they were here. Like kingfishers, they look too exotic for England; and also like kingfishers, it only takes a glimpse to know which bird you have seen.
20/12/2018 It very much still feels like autumn, and I’m glad about that. I can carry on enjoying walks and garden jobs accompanied by chickens and goats without having to brace myself too often to go outdoors. I know I will warm up soon enough with activity, but that doesn’t stop me putting off going out in the cold…
Autumn seems to be the quietest B&B period. More so than winter. I think once New Year has passed, people start needing to think about their next long weekend or holiday in order to get them through till spring. I don’t mind having a quiet period: it gives me a chance to catch up on all the long overdue tasks of mending, sorting, tidying (indoors and out), admin, getting myself generally a little more organised than usual, and even decorating. And this year I actually feel as though I’ve made the most of the time available, to the extent that three years after building work was completed, I am finally getting round to decorating the animal room and finding a way to permanently rodent-proof the wattle and daub walls, which are slowly but surely being transferred to the floor by chewing chinchillas and excavating rats… I am also well on my way to having a new bathroom (the last time it was done was likely in the 1950s) along with other smaller but equally essential renewals or additions, such as paving improvements and a proper fence for my rhubarb bed that I defy even Ilo and Felicity to breach…