Well, lots of people have been talking about a New Year, making all kinds of New Plans, dreaming all kinds of New Dreams, and for the most part my (unspoken) reaction has been one of: “WTF, you guys: it’s January, it’s cold, it’s winter – shouldn’t you still be asleep along with everything else, waiting for the sun to come back and warm your marrow before you even begin to think about stirring and emerging from your dens?”… I first noticed it last year, but it really hit home this winter just how strange it is to have the snows come down and blanket everything with silence and frozen stillness – to walk about and everywhere notice animal and plant beings so quiet and withdrawn into themselves with only the barest glimmer of life-light visible to the observer – and then come back to a civilised humanity breaking its back to keep everything running in exactly the same way it was during the height of summer. People leaving their homes before dawn and getting back after dusk, others in the employ of transport and civil infrastructure working around the clock to keep roads, railways, airports, schools, hospitals, offices open and functioning as ‘normal’. And when these efforts failed, many took their frenzied activity into the outdoors. Here’s a photo from last January in the local park, presenting the typical scene after a medium-heavy snowfall:
Where have all these people come from? Where did they find so much energy at this time of year? Where were they during all the other seasons (the park is almost never this full)? I see in these gatherings a kind of revolutionary fervour: “We have decided that the Laws of Nature don’t apply to us. Now we’re going to flaunt it and dare the world to break us if it can. Together we are strong!” Any wild creatures still out and about must think we’re nuts. As Dougald Hind observed on the Dark Mountain blog (speaking about the materialist emphasis of Christmas celebrations, but the point generalises), ‘the activities prescribed are utter foolishness: biologically they make no sense and only a culture as out of sorts as ours could fail to notice this.’ He continues:
The effect of the northern winter on the mood was remarked on by the 6th century historian Jordanes, writing his history of the Goths from the kinder climate of Constantinople. Modern medicine labels the phenomenon Seasonal Affective Disorder, but is there anything out of order about a lowering of the spirits, as the life ebbs from the landscape around us?
The midwinter customs of northern cultures recognise and work with this. The weeks before the solstice are handled with care, with an awareness that the forces of life, light and warmth are at their weakest. In Shetland, the week before Yule was a time when trolls were at large and to be kept off with rituals at gates and doorways. In Latvia, the fortnight before the winter festival is called “the season of ghosts.” The Christian season of Advent, a time of quietness and waiting, itself reflects the wisdom of going gently through these ugliest weeks of the year.
I have been feeling the sap rise up in me again lately, being out & about spotting the new buds, shoots and even a few flowers opening up on my herbal task-of-the-month (more on this shortly). But the last 3 or 4 months have been particularly hard and depressing for me, so I anticipate it might take a little more than usual for me to pull out of the seasonal funk; a little longer to awake from hibernation.
Basically I got thrown out of whack when the trees apparently decided that none of them were going to produce any nuts that Autumn, and I never recovered. The previous year I had enjoyed bumper crops from beech, hazel, oak and chestnut (three of these for the first time) which gave me a feeling of confidence that I could nourish myself well on these neglected foods and that, at a push, they could serve as my caloric staples for a sizeable chunk of the year. When October and November came and went this year with only a few immature sweet chestnuts and a failed experiment trying to make an edible flour out of conkers* I felt a kind of terror with the knowledge that if I were relying heavily on these harvests I would probably die, coupled with a lingering sense of betrayal – the land had chosen not to provide for me. I learned from Feral Kevin that Valley Oaks in California only produce large quantities of nuts every 2-3 years and furthermore ‘[...] are pretty much on the same cycle. They’ll either all fruit heavily, or none of them fruit at all’ and H speculated about unusually dry summers followed by heavy rains discouraging trees across the board, all of which helped my brain not to take it too personally. But beyond the intellect the bitterness and feelings-of-rejection persisted, leading to a withdrawal from wild foods and interest in The Outdoors generally. I know it must look immature and petulant in a throw-your-toys-out-of-the-pram kind of way, and that I should have simply and without fuss moved my attention to other foodplants like nuts and berries – diversity being the great strength of foraging as a subsistence strategy†. In fact I recognised this at the time, as you can see from my comment on Kevin’s post, and I did try to re-direct my frustrated enthusiasm with:
#1 – Double-infused Elderflower oil (later mixed with grated beeswax to make a moisturising salve):
#3 – A leaf container (oak leaves left to rot down in wire frame bracketed onto hazel poles foraged from local coppice):
#’s 4 & 5 – Apples (chutney, more or less following this recipe) and More Apples (filtering and siphoning the now super-strong dry cider into screwtop bottles):
… plus a few other first-time experiments and many of the usual jams, jellies and syrups. Nevertheless the blues settled in to stay by November/December, bringing apathy, introspection and a grey lack-lustre to my internal landscape, closely fitting the one I saw outside. I don’t think I was much fun to be around, no matter what brave face I happened to be trying at any given time… H thought I had chosen to ‘feed the darkness’; that the landscapes only seemed bleak because I was focusing on their negative aspects and turning a blind eye to the positives. I didn’t (and don’t) feel confident enough to deny the suggestion. As ever, I just hope that I learned something from the experience; that the crap was worth wading through and taking seriously (or primarily – as ‘evidence’ valid and undeniable in its own right), and that better things lie ahead.
Please feel free (and welcome) to share your winter horror-stories in the comments section below!
* – the PFAF entry suggested a combination of roasting and leaching, as with acorns, but my results tasted worse than the raw nut.
† – Richard Borshay Lee writing in the early 1960s about the Ju/Hoansi-!Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert:
Apart from the mongongo [nut - caloric staple, providing '50 percent of the vegetable diet by weight'], the Bushmen have available eighty-four other species of edible food plants, including twenty-nine species of fruits, berries and melons and thirty species of roots and bulbs. The existence of this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in susistence strategy. During the summer months the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose anmong the tastiest and most easily collected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so that gathering never exhausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the diet becomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make an important contribution. It is this broad base that provides an essential margin of safety during the end of the dry season, when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likely that these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace elements that may be lacking in the more popular foods. (‘The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari’ – p.110 in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology)
…but then, they’ve got whole tribes and thousand-year cultural traditions backing them up in their subsistence efforts. I’ve got maybe 2-3 years paying attention to this stuff with the dubious assistance of authors writing in books about different times & places, AND practically all of the people in my culture are pulling in entirely the opposite direction to the one I want to take. Go figure if enthusiasm is hard to come by…