The winter has felt long this year, longer than usual. I don’t know if lockdown has made it seem more intense, with the confinement of walls and home edging in and amplifying the darkness. As February turned into March and we passed Shrove Tuesday and fell headlong into Lent, I felt annoyed at childhood notions pushing at my mind, to be dutiful, to give something up and be frugal. The past year has felt hard enough, and the idea of any more going without filled me with an unexpected rage. I know lots of friends feel the same. I do not live by the Church calendar any more, but these things are firmly ingrained in my psyche from my younger years – the idea of travelling the seasons with the rising and falling light, and mapping this into a narrative for a community to share, and live by.
For a long time, I have been writing my own narrative. It is one of seeking and finding. It is a narrative of how to be happy in the turning year, using the smallest subtle changes in nature as co-ordinates on each trip around the sun. At first, when I knew this way to travel would be something that would work for me, I just noticed, and practised noticing as an art. This is something I learned from my sharp-eyed mother, and before her my grandmother and wider family, who always lived closed to the land and took particular joy in connecting with plants. It’s funny how, no matter how determined we might be, that turning out to be like a person who raised us can seem inevitable. As my own interactions with technology changed over time, I began photographing what I saw on a basic digital camera, then, on a mobile phone camera. Though I do have a DSLR, it is rare for me to bring it out now, as the technology nestled in my pocket is surprisingly just as capable.
This year, I have consciously, for the first time, chosen to look back at the steps I have been taking, and assess whether I am at a similar position, or if I am behind the path, or indeed ahead of myself. It fascinates me that the algorhythms of social media, that give us ‘on this day’ headlines, can now tell me what was happening in my garden and on my local patch a year ago, because I chose to record those details there. I like it that I know that the trees seem to be waking later this year, because of the snap of cold weather, which also came a bit later. I like it that I can see when flowers turned their faces to the sun, and knowing when to expect them, for me, only adds to anticipation and celebration.
Because I now walk almost everywhere, I feel like I can map my city in cherry blossom, from the winter flowering varieties, which always thrill me, every year, to their spring cousins, who so gracefully herald the turn of the season. In previous years, I have worked in London around this time, honing my wits and eyes to be part of the mechanism of summer exams in English Language and Literature, attending meetings in dimly lit hotel basements, and breaking free at lunchtimes to stand in Russell Square in a shower of falling petals. This year there are no meetings, and there will be no exams, but still the trees go on.
My local park is often my first point of checking in, beyond my back garden. I walk there daily, taking the children to and from school, watching them play and adventure, and chatting to other parents. Sometimes this is a challenge, when we are all coming from work to school, and want to be home. Sometimes it’s a joy, when we gather on picnic blankets, and ply our offspring with snacks, taking the time to enjoy moments of stillness, sitting in direct contact with the earth. These connections are something I have missed a great deal in lockdown, even now our school is and always has been fully operational, these absences of small moments of knowing I am not alone have been deeply felt.
As I walked today, I felt aware of how quickly the world of nature and of plant life is moving. I spent a long time looking for, then almost worshipping snowdrops, and now they are mostly gone, their blooms browning into retreat for another year. I am delighted by celandines and violets, yet their gowns are fleeting too. The cherry blossom that I love has been buffeted by passing storms, decorating the pavements and ground with a confetti of white blooms. The blackthorn, which for me is another main marker of time, holds fast in buds against the cold, where I live, yet in a few weeks, I am sure the hedgerows will be full of flowers.
On my walk today, I saw how far Hawthorn had moved on, last week leaves curled tightly, rolled around themselves, now opening, tentatively, to provide the delightful sweet tasting snack, that I know as bread and cheese! I noticed other leaves opening too, the Elders, that later in the year supply me with ingredients for cordial, are waking, stretching and making their presence felt. The brave little Irises we put in a pot on our kitchen table appeared to be doing nothing, in the cold, unheated room; yet overnight they are shaking out their petals and showing us what they are made of.
I feel like we are balanced at the top of a long downhill slide, maybe like a diver waiting to take the plunge, or a skier, gathering courage for the run, whose course has an inevitable conclusion. Much as I wish for time to move on, I also wish I could pause at the moment of promise, as the light rises, and days begin to noticeably lengthen. As I write, I wonder why these moments, that are the cusp of changes in the natural world hold so much significance for me, and I have come to realise that the answer is that in the change of a plant, the budding of a tree, the uncurling of a leaf, I see hope and time combined. That everything is always moving on, and we all begin again.