One night during the weeks approaching Winter Solstice, I took to bed one of my favourite books, Findings by Kathleen Jamie, and re-read its opening essay, Darkness and Light.
Settling down in that long night to lose myself in Kathleen Jamie’s clear-seeing prose was a small, anticipatory celebration of that magical tipping point of darkness and light. A welcoming of the special qualities of both, at a time of year that is like a retreat and an embrace; a time to reflect, take stock, evaluate and wonder.
The winter light filling those days around the solstice was something to celebrate. It had brought gifts of form and clarity; a glow that held things close. It had had a sense of enclosure about it – as if, in each day, we were held in a tight, intense moment; our attention gathered near to watch intently those things closer to home. Those bitterly cold, but gleaming days were parcelled up in darkness, wrapped in shaded edges that defined their very qualities. Precious and brief, the light they cast entered windows with a muted whiteness that was like the telling of a secret tucked in its shadows.
One blue, bright morning…
… I had stood bathed in sunlight at the top of our stairs, and watched as its beams passed through a crystal ornament standing on the window sill, transforming the walls with bursts of vivid rainbows. Each was a perfect, intense spectrum; those huddling colours like a magic spell conjured out of the chill.
In Darkness and Light, Kathleen Jamie writes about these days around the winter solstice:
‘Mid-December, the still point of the turning year. It was eight in the morning and Venus was hanging like a wrecker’s light above Black Craig. The hill itself – seen from our kitchen window – was still in silhouette, though the sky was lightening into a pale yellow-grey. It was a weakling light, stealing into the world like a thief through a window someone forgot to close.’
‘I like the precise gestures of the sun……everything we imagine doing, this time of year, we imagine doing in the dark.’
At around 4 p.m. on the night of my re-read, my daughter had called me urgently to the dining room window. A flock (we counted eleven) of long-tailed tits had jinked through the dusk to cluster on our garden fat feeders, their tails overlapping in elegant criss-crossing lines, their white and black markings exaggerated in the gloom, and their pink blush washed to sepia, as if caught in the glow of an old two-tone photograph. After a few moments of peck, shift, peck, flit, they huddled and separated and clustered again in a purposeful communal fidget. With urgent, constant communication they finished their hasty meal, and headed towards the big old trees in the gardens behind ours. Darkness was falling rapidly, graining the sky grey. They needed to find their roost for the night. The cold air was closing like a tight fist. Lights were beaming from the windows, spilling in pools. The long-tails flew beyond the reach of the light, seeking the shadows.
‘I imagined travelling into the dark. Northward – so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail at night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out…… Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish, like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in darkness are we not?’
– Kathleen Jamie, Findings (published by Sort Of Books, distributed by Penguin Group)
In her essay, Kathleen Jamie takes us with her on her travels to Maes Howe on Orkney. Her hope is to witness the setting winter solstice sun beam directly along the passageway of the Neolithic burial chamber, casting its light onto the tomb’s back wall. What she sees there is a connection between ancient and modern – between human ingenuity, and our relationships to darkness and light – played out in a surprising way.
Even in the very midst of Christmas parcel wrapping, I came across another pertinent exploration of the nature of the dark, in Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots – of Fathers, Friendship and Fishing, which I had bought for a friend who loves fishing. I’d heard great things about the lyrical beauty of the book and its nature writing – and, unable to resist dipping into the first couple of chapters before wrapping it, I was soon captivated by Luke Jennings’ description of urban fishing at night. Fishing itself doesn’t hold any attraction for me, but as an amateur naturalist, I recognise the sense of focus and fusion with landscape; the close, relished mystery of wild lives – the mystery of life itself – unseen around us:
‘My world has contracted to a box of darkness: to walls, the towpath and the black of the water. As always, there’s the temptation to wind in the bait a little, to check that it’s OK, but that way madness lies, because you’ll never really know what’s happening down there.
Nor would you want to, because in an over-illuminated world, a world whose dark corners are in constant retreat from the remorseless, banal march of progress, this not knowing is a thing to be valued and enjoyed.’
– From Blood Knots by Luke Jennings (Atlantic Books)
During the Yuletide lead-up, I watched Rick Stein’s Cornish Christmas programmes on BBC2. In one episode, he interviewed Tim Smit, CEO of the Eden Project, who mused on the rich pagan and Christian mix of our midwinter festival, and also on the lighting of candles at this time. He reflected how there is something about candlelight that encourages words – makes us want to talk, share intimate conversation. It’s just occurred to me now, writing this, that the intimate sense of enclosure candlelight creates, is the same intimacy which that brief, parcelled-up light of winter gives to what we see around us. That sense of focus and centre, depth and pause. It’s a light by which to huddle, and share stories.
But the solstice also makes us look outwards on a whole planetary level – it can stretch our imagination far out to those huge workings of the Universe, the tilt and movement of the Earth, the progress of the seasons, the changes in our night skies…
In the November 2010 issue of the RSPB’s Birds magazine, there is a lovely article by Conor Jameson entitled Seasons to be Cheerful. In it he talks about the birds’ responses to the seasons – and about how many birds and other creatures ‘…make light of planetary distance and treat the globe as their home, and the galaxy as their sat nav.’
Conor Jameson goes on to say:
‘Each year, the Earth in a sense ‘breathes in’ from the autumn equinox to the spring equinox and ‘breathes out’ from the spring to the autumn. Time-lapsed footage of this really does make the planet look like it is breathing. Imagine then the world’s birds moving in response to that inhalation, that sheet of ice, snow and cold air easing them south in autumn, and drawing them back north again in the spring, at an estimated 5 mph, as it retreats.’
I love that idea – and the beautiful, all encompassing image it conjures…
This time of year brings many gifts – not least the thirteen redwings, blown in by the snow from the outlying fields, seeking food in our garden! On December 20th, they swept over our hedge and adorned our damson trees like elegant sentinels, their red-streaked sides in full blush against the white sky – causing both delight in our household, and ruffled feathers amongst the starling flock already perched on the branches! The redwings continued to fly round and round the gardens, tumbling into and out of our trees throughout the day – and on the winter solstice itself – adding more magic to that time. The winter before, the snow brought fieldfares to our garden. They stayed for a few days, ate the apples we put out for them, and enchanted us with their beauty:
As Conor Jameson goes on to say in his Birds magazine article:
‘A northern winter has much to cherish. Without it, there would be no fieldfares and redwings arriving in squadrons from Scandinavia, no geese from Greenland descending on our western shores, nor whooper swans on our eastern fields, magically, overnight. There would be fewer robins and blackbirds visiting our back gardens to see what we’ve got for them here in our temperate, ocean-insulated island group.’
On New Year’s Eve, I opened the front door at dusk, and was greeted by a calm mildness on the air that felt like an early out-breath from the Earth. On that breath, emerging from the deepening shadows, curled the leisurely, fluting song of a blackbird…
In those very last days of 2010, and in the earliest of 2011, the passing of the solstice and the slightly lengthening days awoke more and more birdsong. On January 2nd, I opened the bathroom window to let out some steam, and the room was instantly flooded by a cacophony of birds. And this week, I’ve noticed that the blackbirds in the garden have paired up, and the male is busy chasing off a rival (so, high drama on the lawn!) Two robins have also paired up, and are hanging around the garden together, and in February, frog spawn will adorn our neighbours’ ponds. Whatever the weather brings over these next few weeks, out of that bud of cold and darkness, spring is already unfolding…
Happy New Year!