There’s a saying doing the rounds on social media that the leaves are showing us how wonderful it is to let go. Accompanied by glorious images of the fall, it’s a comforting thought that’s hard to hold on to as the icy hand of winter tightens its grip.
The woods are dark these mornings as I trudge through in my daily ritual of watching the first light appear through the bare branches. The heady birdsong of spring and summer is gone. A damp quietness hangs all round. The earth smells pungent with decay. I miss the canopy of leaves overhead. The last big wind took what remained of the leaves on the sycamores and the oaks. The birch and alder are shorn too – the forest floor is thick with rotting leaves.
Making my way back through the woods where the warmth of the kitchen awaits, I stop by the old boat shed where a few stray leaves have blown on to the concrete floor. It’s dry here and I step inside. The smell instantly transports me back to childhood when this place was a hive of industry.
It was where the boats were stored when the salmon season had ended. It’s where the nets were mended and where they still hang. When I think of the winter, I think of my great uncle Jim – his hands grizzled with age – mending the nets from wear and tear and the ravages of seals eager to steal his catch.
It was a painstaking job, one that took skill and observation. It was a job for the winter nights when there wasn’t a lot else to do once the darkness fell. I can still see him, the nets laid out on his lap and spilling over the floor, mending needle in hand.
Our ancestors had an innate appreciation of the seasons. The winter, with its long nights, was necessary after the busy summer. It was a time to rest, to recharge and to mend. But in our always on, busy lives lit up by the constant need to be productive, we’ve lost the ability to mend ourselves.
To winter well was a compliment I remember hearing as a child. It seems old-fashioned now, almost quaint to think of wintering well. For most of us, the change in seasons doesn’t mean anything. Our schedule is still breakneck regardless of the time of year.
But as human beings, we’re hard wired for fallow times. Our deep nature is to know that we also need to winter so we can emerge into the spring with a sense of renewal. Finding a way to do that is harder than it looks when we have bills to pay, deadlines to meet, children with schedules that make your eyes water and a million and one other things to do.
In her book Wintering, author Katherine May offers a personal exploration of the darkest season and the spring which inevitably follows. “More than any other season, winter requires a kind of metronome that ticks away its darkest beats, giving us a melody to follow into spring,” she writes.
“The year will move on either way,” she reminds us, “but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition – perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year we can get the measure of it,” she says.
I’m trying to pay attention to the small things – winter seems to shrink everything – so that I notice the small things in the day worth taking note of. I’m trying to slow down, to be more present in the everyday experiences instead of ticking things off the list.
I’m noticing what small birds are eating from the bird feeder in the garden. I’m paying attention to the comical speed of the sanderlings as they move in unison when a wave comes in. I’m watching the blackbird flip over leavesto see what tasty morsel might be hidden underneath.
All around us, it might look like nature is asleep, dormant or hibernating but deep in the earth massive transformational change is happening. Rest is necessary for the transformations to occur. For us, the fallow periods can provide a re-set or a trigger to awaken our creativity. The winter is holding out an opportunity to take stock if we grab it.
Doing nothing, simply being has become so undervalued that we equate it with laziness. Nature knows that it’s only in letting everything go that we can bloom again. I’m still trying to learn this lesson – it’s not easy when we’re programmed to be always doing.
At this time of year the words of poet John O’Donohue always come to mind with his simple reminder that there is a time for everything. “This is the time to be slow, lie low to the wall until the bitter weather passes. Try, as best you can, not to let the wire brush of doubt scrape from your heart all sense of yourself and your hesitant light,” he writes in his anthology Benedictus, A Book of Blessings.
Being slow and going slow isn’t easy. Wintering well is something that most of us have to practice but we may reap the rewards for a long time to come if we allow ourselves the time to be fallow; to just be.