by Rachael Barham
I cautiously reverse between the monumental mountains of snow that hedge our now severely narrowed driveway, the cumulative effect of three heavy storms within ten days and no thaw in sight.The world has been cold and ghostly white, its days short and its nights long, for many weeks now. Yet the icy blast still shocks me every time I leave the cozy fug of my home or car, as does the extreme absence of colour whenever I glance up from the dishes to see the back yard. A scene that in a few months’ time will be a lush, living green is now only white on grey on white, as if it’s been buried alive, slowly drained of the flush of life.
Now safely parked, I lower one numb foot onto the compacted snow in a world as silent as it is dead. But as I turn towards the house I’m stopped in my tracks by an unexpected noise. I hold my breath and listen hard to make sure and, yes, it’s the rhythmic pecking of a woodpecker! Peering up into the bare branches of my neighbour’s soaring maple, a small black figure makes itself known to me by its vigorous pecking at the frozen bark. The incongruous presence of this creature who should surely have migrated or be hiding away, but whose busy spirit has brought her out in these frigid temperatures, is enough to make me laugh out loud with delight. Though spring is still months away, this sighting feels like a welcome harbinger of the thaw and lengthening days that I’m longing for.
The winter is so long and hard here in my new Canadian home that the return of warmth, light, growth and green do feel truly miraculous. In a very real sense we in the Great White North are just trying to survive this dark and deadly season, hanging on for dear life as Mother Nature throws everything she’s got at us. The spring and summer are in comparison sweet and short, and their pleasures never lose their wonder for me. Each time I walk barefoot down the mossy lawn, heavy laundry basket on hip, and create on the line a rainbow of socks and T-shirts under a burgeoning canopy of leaves and birds; then pick sprigs of peppermint, spearmint and lemon balm to make tea so fresh and earthy it tastes like spring itself; and drink it in the swaying garden hammock, batting away the season’s new offering of blessed bugs… Each time I do these simple things I feel fully present, alive, and incredibly grateful. The joyful presence I experience almost makes the struggle of the lengthy winter feel worth it. In moderate and relatively invariable England, I never knew this kind of awe at the miracle of a world resurrected.
But the fact that resurrection is coming, as it does every single spring without fail, does not make the dying that must come first an easy thing to bear. This autumn, on passing a flower bed that fills every year with a gorgeous mass of colour but whose now dead stalks had recently been hacked down to brown stubs, my first response was sadness that the beautiful flowers were gone, leaving only this ugly deadness. However, as I paused to look longer and deeper, I was surprised by a feeling that these stumps were beautiful in their own right. Evidently, they no longer possessed the vigorous vitality or variety of shade and texture that they had displayed for our pleasure all summer long; but it would be wrong to see them as lifeless. Rather, they were resting, and the life that they would exhibit again next year was wholly present but cleverly concealed in their current humble form.
Speaking of winter both literally and metaphorically, English mystic and writer Caryll Houselander says this: “The law of growth is rest. We must be content in winter to wait patiently through the long bleak season, […] believing the truth, that these seasons which seem to be the most empty are the most pregnant with life.” I had a momentary glimpse of this truth that fall day observing the dormant flower bed. But today, hit by what feels like the millionth blizzard in a row, such counsel feels harder to accept. In fact, I remarked to a friend that the concept of winter as a restful season leading to growth, while it feels like a reasonable description of a clime as mild as England’s, doesn’t seem to do justice to the harshness of winter here. His observation in response – that these layers of snow are actually protecting the soil and its dormant seeds from the cold – gave me a new perspective on my drained-of-colour back yard: perhaps rather than being brutally buried alive, it is more accurate to see my garden as being tenderly blanketed. However much I may continue to rue its existence, this soft white covering is allowing the earth to sink into a deep sleep and, after its long rest, to rise again reinvigorated.
So as I lie listening to the bitter moan of the wind tonight, I bless the walls and roof, fabric and feathers, that keep my furless body cocooned and allow me, like the earth, to rest and rise revived. Even as I dream of bare feet on sun-warmed grass, I too can accept winter’s invitation to rest during this season of hibernation; to hide away for a while in sheltered spaces; to take things a little more slowly; all the while trusting the reality that seasons of dormancy and waiting always precede longed-for seasons of growth and realization.