Despite three years of a biology degree, everything I know about bird identification I learned from my husband. There was a time when birdsong came and went with ignorant appreciation. I enjoyed the symphony without being able to name a single instrument. That’s ok; there’s beauty enough in the simple wonder. But over the past few years – and particularly those with the vernacular of ‘lockdown’ unexpectedly inserted – I have been slowly, accidentally, picking up some of the nuances to be able to name the visitors to my view as I tap away on the keys.
To the point where this year, it was me who pointed to the sky and said: “Is that the first swifts?”
Two sets of eyes scanned the skyline.
Black arrows cut back and forth across blue. They’d likely travelled from the African continent to be here, and signalled this happy news: warmer weather was here.
It’s the scent, I think, that draws me to real trees. It reaches you the moment you open the front door. The lights might not yet be on, but Christmas hangs in the air and leads you in from the cold.
We would always have leaned towards getting real Christmas trees. Perhaps because we both grew up with them. And fake trees have always struck me as just a little sad; somehow managing to be both a shadow of and a more brash version of the original. But that is just my perception, formed from the sense that our lifelong habit must be the right one.
And there is an annual debate about that is the ‘right one’, environmentally speaking. It seems the answers are similar to others in this debate: try to keep the one you have in use as long as possible; if buying new, buy quality and organic. So potted trees are the eventual way forward.
If you can keep them alive that is. Since we got our first garden, we have been trying. And this year, we’re celebrating the fact that we will finally welcoming one back into the house for its second Christmas season. A miracle, of sorts!
And yet, I’m ok with it. Ok with the fact that one area of life required, enforced, benefited from almost full-time attention for a season. And we are learning to be kind to ourselves. Empty the diary and fill the fridge with tasty, easy food. It’s ok to stop baking bread, to get takeout one more time this month, to cancel or say ‘no’, to read all seven Harry Potter books once again (except the end of book five. He was my favourite character; it’s too much). Kindness comes in many forms.
When I told people that we were going to Morocco for six nights they all spoke of the colour, the crowds, the hum of those narrow streets. And that set my expectations. Expectations that our first experience seemed to cement: following a stranger – who carried our bags while we held onto our wide-eyed wonder – through a central square of fire-silhouetted figures, and drums beating, and raw, wild energy. This, we thought, was Marrakech.
Oh Winter. I was done with you in January. So done. But you weren’t done with me. In fact you had more to come, hurling eastern winds at us and unifying the landscape under a fleece of snow in March. I enjoyed that first snowy week; heart-warmed by the way it drew people from their homes into a sense of awe and adventure. But for the rest of the time, I have been ready for Spring; eager to air my ankles, slip into lighter jackets and feel a jaunt in my step. I want to embrace the seasons, but Winter, you were a struggle to be close to this year.
When I think back on 2017, I remind myself that this is the year that we carved out a new life in a bigger, bolder city than before. A place where our community means more travel time with strangers on trains than with friends in their homes. A city that is not, in truth, a natural fit. That shades out the stars and puts miles between us and the sea. But we have learned how to do life here; how to not just make it work but embrace the opportunity and privilege that, as well as being all those other things, it truly is. It seems unlikely (though who knows) that it is forever, so we want to make the most of it while we can.
This blog post arrives as a seasonal coincidence. This day, the Solstice, is apparently the true start of Winter. But in truth it’s felt pretty frosty for a while. We’ve been buried. Inside and under blankets, with a hot drink in hand. Outside and under woolly hats, with a hot drink in hand (in reusable cups picked up from Oxfam).
Despite my annual trepidation as summer fades, I’ve become better at finding joy in the nature of each season. I attribute much of this to gardening giving me a greater appreciation of the year’s rhythms. For the first year, we’ve made considered efforts to winterise the garden, rather than just letting it slide into neglect until Spring. We’ve planted winter jasmine and hellebore, and still taken our morning coffee on the bench – fortified for the cold with a blanket and an extra woolly jumper.
It’s beginning to end, the season of abundance, of frivolous beauty in the garden, and laboured-for harvest from the pots of vegetables. It’s beginning to feel dishevelled. The runner bean plants disrupted by (and not quite recovering from) my rifling for treasure. The annuals fading into oblivion. There is no denying that winter is heading this way.
Some of this summer has been spent in wrestling with a tension in the garden:
How do we keep gardening a relaxing past-time, whilst also growing more (plants, vegetables and our own skills and knowledge)?
Water is life-giving. It’s consistent – in how it flows, fills the space it enters. But water is also fluid, changeable. Abundant in some places, absent in others. It is easy to be casual with water when it springs readily with the turn of the tap. The emptying reservoir lies unseen.
Water is local. The drops we thriftily save will not, then, be available to people in drought-ridden East Africa. That’s not how water works. But it doesn’t mean we should be wasteful with it. The water from our taps has already been through the energy-intensive treatment process to make it safe for us to drink. It seems a shame, after all that, to pour it all over our unfussy vegetable plots.
One day’s work would be enough. Enough to transform the garden at our previous house from ramshackle to haven. It was essentially a blank canvas: a square patio edged by an empty bed on two sides. Turn over soil, dig in compost, two hours planting – and it would have arrived. A garden is never finished, but this one would have at least become a coherent entity. Time would only improve it. That ‘Rome’ was built in a day.