”February fill the dyke, Be it black or be it white; But if it be white, It’s the better to like.”
This year, I have not been a fan of February. Usually I like it, the gradual moving forward in the season, the push and pull of different weathers. I usually like the small splashes of colour that appear, and the contrasting icy blasts that wake us and let us know we really are alive, even if we retreat from them very quickly.
February in my family brings a whole host of birthdays, close together celebrations of sun travel, and lives winding their threads onwards. It brings valentines day too, and all the constructions and expectations about how we should be and what love means, to us and to other people. February also offers Imbolc and Candlemass, which I love, and look forward to. Yet this year, travelling away from them towards the next full moon and other turning points has felt like a long hard slog.
This year, February has been cold, dark and gloomy, mostly wet, and extremely muddy. Historically February went by many other names, including Solmonath, which means mud month, and feels highly appropriate to my experience. One of the things that keeps me going all year round is walking, with intent. Walking and paying very close attention to the tiny details of the natural world is one of my favourite things to do, and I have come to realise that for me, it is the key to happiness. I am much more delighted by learning to identify the tiny flaming female flowers on a hazel bush than by going on a shopping trip. Also, looking at nature is free, and much better for my bank balance. I have struggled through, and sometimes the idea of staying in warm and dry, secluded in splendid isolation seems more attractive than sallying forth into the grim and grisly weather. Earlier excessive rainfall, and series of storms and the fact that I live on low lying, drained marsh land, have made this a true mud month for me, and I have struggled with it.
This year February has taught me a lesson though. It was one I very much needed as a reminder of what works for me. It happened on a particularly grey and desolate Monday, when all the family birthdays had passed and everything just felt like more of the same. More of a sticky, muddy, soggy, brown and grey month. More rain and floods, full ditches and water flowing onto land. I did not want to walk in February on this day. I wanted to stay in, but convinced I am not a fair weather walker, as I used to look after horses and sheep in all circumstances, I went out anyway, forcing myself to put one foot in front of another. I have been watching the trees carefully in the park, and the one that was already in bloom this time last year, by the main gates, was still sleeping. My photographic memory calendar showed it budding out and blousy a year ago, dancing in rays of light, under a bright blue sky, looking like something from a Japanese fairy tale – but not this year. I felt as if the tree mirrored my feelings, of waiting and waiting, longer than usual for the wheel to turn and the season to change.
I always find it interesting when I make myself do something that I know is good for me. The thinking about it is a lot worse than the doing, and I usually feel better instantly, it’s as if I know my own medicine, yet I struggle to give it to myself. This year of being held indefinitely in our homes, waiting for the world to be different has felt like an extended hibernation period, and although it was one I didn’t and wouldn’t have chosen, I have somehow gotten into the small rhythms of this time. I know I like to see the light rising in my back garden early, I know I like to shake hands with my hazel and mulberry trees first thing in the morning, and I like to listen to the birds waking and drifting up over the gardens, ever hopeful that they will visit the feeders I have been hanging for them. I wonder if the sense of confinement and being kept small in a relatively small space have made it my sense of engagement with the wider changes of the seasons more filled with awe, and therefore more powerful.
When I made myself go for a weekly long walk on this grey and drizzly February Monday, I was grumpy, and really wanting to remain in my safe burrow and ignore the outside world. But I knew I should go out and tread the paths I walk through the seasons, and always enjoy. In walking familiar paths and spending time on a patch of land, I feel I know it as an extension of who I am, and over time, care deeply for it. I want to look after my places, as I know it turns out that they look after me in some way too. I have been inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s amazing book, Braiding Sweetgrass, in which she shares wisdom after wisdom, layered through native knowing and understanding, and scientific and academic explanation. Kimmerer says, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
I have felt this notion of being bonded to the living things of the earth and the living things in my places all my life. This was why we had a favourite violet patch under the hedge along the road near the cemetery in the village where I grew up, a place watched with needle eyed attention to the emergence of the first heart shaped leaves and purple buds – the news shared and celebrated. This is why we have walks that we repeat again and again over the years to look for and find happiness in our observations of the tiny manifestations that represent gargantuan effort – survival against the odds, and renewal of hope that life goes on.
I made myself observe in the way I always do on my February walk, searching for lichens and fungi, noticing which trees have male and female flowers visible, measuring catkins with my eyes, and looking for subtle changes to show me the way forward.
We had nearly reached the end of our circuit, through what looked like a landscape painted in shades of workshop brown and garden fence grey, with gunmetal skies. I had given up hope of finding anything spectacular, and was trudging along, tracing my footsteps along the familiar track back home. I nearly missed something, but out of the corner of my eye, some movement piqued my attention, and I had to stop and retrace my steps.
There! There was the gradual work of a tree sleeping and dreaming through storms and floods, opening woodland eyes, to wake beneath a watercolor sun. The flowers of the Cherry Plum, pluming out like a fountain of light in the darkness, dressing the tree in shades of white and pink. We both stopped to take it in, with our eyes, and our noses, and somehow somewhere deeper, within our bones.
If I had not forced myself out, I would have missed this moment, I would not have experienced this joy. I was so happy to see these blossoms beside the river, near Iffley Lock in a sweep of the river Thames in the city that I love. And I know that February gave me an important lesson, that if I go outside, nature always gives me exactly what I need, and this certainly felt like a gift.