Winter: A Feast for the Senses.
Every day it’s getting darker as winter deepens. It’s getting colder. Costs are rising. It would be easy to get down-hearted. Instead let’s enjoy this time for rest and recovery helped by nature’s free treasures, allowing all our senses to follow the turning year.
The sounds of winter are very special – the soft, almost sad call of the winter robin, one of the only birds which sings throughout the season. The song is a territorial notice to rivals as both males and females stake out their plots. Standing in a field the other day the sound of silk ruffling overhead made me look up – a flock of silent rooks was passing, with just the wind in their sleek, iridescent feathers to tell of their journey to their winter roost. If we get snow or frost we’ll have the squeaky scrunch as our boots make first steps on the glittering surfaces and the crack as we break through the air-patterned ice on puddles. Until then it’s the slop of boots in mud, the crunch of dry leaves at the start of their slow journey to enrich the soil, rain hammering against the windows, refilling ponds after our summer of drought, ready for frogs, toads and newts.
With dark evenings comes the constellation Orion, the hunter, stalking up the Eastern sky, the three bright stars of his belt shining. What a treat are these black nights. Try wrapping up warmly and standing in the garden. Let your eyes adjust – turn off the house lights, the security light, any Christmas lights, and bathe in the darkness. This is the darkness of our hunter-gather ancestors and of wild creatures, of night vision and heightened senses. Animals, birds and insects rely on cycles of light and darkness to regulate hunting, breeding and resting. Disruption of those patterns can lead to population declines as animals become more stressed and breed less successfully (1). We can all help – and make sure our children get to see the Milky Way – by reducing outside lighting as much as possible. If you have Christmas lights you could put them on a timer so they go off when you go to bed, leaving the darkness for hunting owls and foxes.
Tasting nature is always intriguing and needs to be done with care. We’ll all be thinking about Christmas dinner so if you eat meat what about wild venison? Deer numbers are now so high that over-grazing is destroying woodland under-storey, affecting species like nightingales (now on the red list) and the regeneration of trees (2). Nature relies on balance – with no deer predators apart from the car, a re-balance is needed. With local suppliers venison is a healthy and sustainable meat for those of us who are omnivores.
Already the sweet scent of Viburnum bodnantense is drifting on the air. If you have one of these lovely shrubs you’re likely to be enjoying its pink flowers and fragrance all winter. So will late bees and other pollinators who emerge on mild days. The pungency of rotting leaves; the first frosty day; the spiciness of conifers cut to decorate the house at Christmas. Smells bring so many memories of times with loved ones – of time spent in nature – to get us through the stresses we all face.
With no leaves on the trees, winter is the time to enjoy tree barks – some as smooth as satin, others knobbly, cracked and intricately textured. If you are lucky you may find a mass of hibernating snails – try running your hand over these wonderfully bobbly dense groupings – guaranteed no slime! They are more like a stone sculpture. As temperatures drop and day length shortens snails gather together to survive the winter, using their mucus to seal themselves to trees, walls or other sheltered places and to each other, safely dormant until the weather warms up (3).
In every season nature in all of its diversity is a joy and respite, a tonic for our mental health. Winter gives us a chance to share the quiet beauties of our intricately connected world. Happy Christmas.
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