21/1/2018 Most of my chickens are hybrids, bred to lay eggs all year round – except for a few days or weeks here and there, when they are moulting, broody, or think it’s too cold and dark to consider such a thing. They generally lay slightly fewer eggs in winter, but I still have a daily supply.
I have a few pure breed chickens that are less regular in their laying habits, however; and two of them – called Cream Legbars – lay blue eggs. They are just over two years old, and each year they have stopped laying in September or October. I was mighty disappointed the first time they didn’t lay a single egg the rest of the year. I had no idea when they would start laying again – my best guess was early spring – but this year I was better informed. I hadn’t made a note of the date, but I thought it was roughly around the end of January to the middle of February.
13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.
Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.
I thought it would be fitting to play in a church or two on Remembrance Sunday. Knowing that many more churches than usual would have services on this day, I used the Church of England’s ‘church finder’ website to look up church services in the local area. Discovering there was an evensong service at 3pm in Little Finborough church, which I had tried to visit once before and found locked, I emailed the rector to enquire whether the church would be open during the day or if I might come after the service. Before long, to my delight, I received a reply saying that if I arrived at 3.45pm I would be able to get in, and as Combs church was not far away, I decided to go there first.
St Mary’s, Combs Indoor temperature: 9.5˚C
I didn’t leave as much time as I should have – or intended to. I didn’t really expect to find Combs church locked on this Sunday, but locked it was. I didn’t have time to go to another church, and I barely had time to go looking for a key – but for want of a better plan, I decided on the latter. I found details of a keyholder on the noticeboard, and though the lady was friendly and helpful, by the time I had found her house in the depths of Combs Ford – as I thought, a separate village from Combs, but apparently a suburb of Stowmarket – and returned to the church, I had only ten minutes in which to play. Photographs would have to wait: at least I had found out that the church was regularly open on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and so I could plan my return visit more easily.
6/1/2018 Staverton Thicks is one of two places in Suffolk that I like best in winter. Part of the reason may be that my first visit was in December, and the memory of that exhilarating discovery will always stay with me. But there is also a stillness about it in winter. It is not just that fewer people walk there, as I have barely ever encountered anyone in Staverton Thicks, at any time of year. Rather, the stillness is of a wood in hibernation.
The main reason for my preference, however, is that its beauty lies greatly in its quality as a quite extraordinary, walk-in, living sculpture. Its shapes can be appreciated better in winter when the ground and the branches (apart from holly) are bare: more light reaches the woodland floor, and the tall, dense bracken has died back, allowing a clear view of the weird and wonderful forms to be found everywhere in this truly unique woodland.
31/12/2017 I wondered if this should be the first item on my list – after all, according to the astrological calendar, it is the first day of the season. But it is not the first sign of winter; and this year, oblivious of our prescribed arrival and departure dates, winter appeared well before the solstice.
I have a particular connection to the winter solstice: it is the meaning of my name. Yalda, meaning ‘birth of the sun’, is a Persian festival celebrated on the longest night of the year with poetry and food – in particular pomegranate and watermelon, whose colours symbolise dawn and the glow of life. Interestingly, I have only just learnt that the origin of the name, literally meaning ‘birth’, was the Syriac Christian word used in a religious context to mean Christmas. There are obvious parallels with the idea that the date of Christmas may have been adopted from the Pagan festival of the winter solstice.
30/12/2017 The replacement of the blackbird’s song with the robin’s is the first sign for me that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching. The blackbird’s song seems made of water; the robin’s, of ice. There is usually a pause between the two songs: the blackbird stops singing in July, and the robin begins towards the end of August. In fact, I have recently learned, robins sings all year round except for a few weeks in summer, during moulting.
My little friend hasn’t yet returned to claim his (or possibly her) winter territory in the courtyard. Sadly, it is quite possible he is no longer alive, as apparently robins rarely live for more than a year or two. Last year he kept me company most of the winter, appearing whenever I scattered seed for the chickens, and hopping to within a foot of me, so that I thought he might eat out of my hand. When I went to sweep out the goat shed, he would sit on a beam above my head, singing quietly.
‘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.
This plan of a full-moon pilgrimage around the official start of winter fitted in well with another intention of mine: for the last few years I had been wanting, but somehow failing, to celebrate the winter solstice, which would fall on 22nd December this year.
Every year that I live in the countryside, the more connected to the seasons I feel, and the more natural and logical it seems to celebrate with the Earth: the solstices and equinoxes, the first day of spring (falling on the spring equinox, by the astronomical calendar), the first duck’s nest found in the garden, the arrival of the swallows and swifts, my first duckling sighting, the bluebell woods in bloom… There are hundreds of excuses for celebrations throughout the year. An additional excuse for celebrating this particular annual event is that it is my name day: Yalda means the ‘birth of the sun’, and is a Persian festival celebrated in Iran on the winter solstice.
‘There’s an art to the business of wintering. It’s a time to revel in the muddier waters of human emotion and to hibernate magnificently. It’s not just the trees, shorn of flowers and leaves and berries, who turn inward.’ (Jini Reddy, in Winter: An anthology for the changing seasons)
6/3/2017 I was comforted and amused to happen across this declaration on winter just two days ago: the idea of it being possible to describe hibernation as magnificent gives a retrospective, dignified sparkle to my spectacularly unproductive winter.
Although I am a firm follower of the astronomical calendar, in which the equinox marks the start of spring (luckily for me, as I am rather later than intended with my winter newsletter), this year I have decided to claim the best of both worlds. Having seen out February with a stomach bug followed by a friend’s funeral – which pretty well sums up the intervening months since the autumn newsletter – I have never been so happy to greet the first of March, and with it a concrete promise of the approach of spring, as well as a much welcome relaxation of the bird flu-related poultry-keeping restrictions. The chickens suffered their confinement patiently but raucously!
7th February I have learned two things today. First, that never having had any historical personal bond with the sea or coast, they have become part of me. Second, that one can walk off pain, as one can walk off calories. Perhaps not in quite such a calculable fashion, but walk for a day and the burden of pain at the end of it is noticeably less than it was at the start. I can almost physically feel it lessen with every step that I take.