Although my job is far from being a typical 9–5 office one, I am a rush-hour rail commuter. Bleary-eyed from an early start, I try to use the time well by reading a book, or watching the world rush by the window. Moments of beauty often surprise me: even a low forest of lights alongside railway sidings takes on a magical quality in the half-light. Lately I’ve been concentrating on trying not to read the news, and scanning the blurred countryside for signs of hope. They’re getting hard to find, aren’t they? January is hard enough to get through, even without a daily bombardment of exceptionally bad tidings. I’m paralyzed, stuck between wanting to stay as informed as possible so that I might figure out something positive to do and simply retreating into my own little world.
Nature is no cure-all, but that’s where I tend to go for solace. Two birds in particular have been appearing faithfully on my journeys—one in the morning, one in the evening—gracing the day with a much-needed touch of wildness. First, a herring gull. A magnificent full-adult specimen see-sawing in a wide arc over the bus stops, showing off the length of its pale grey wings. It carries with it a sense of adventure and a whiff of salt spray, for such a bird might also be seen patrolling a windswept fishing port on the North Sea coast.
At dusk a blackbird claims the town square as his own. In a few short notes all of spring comes pouring out, and I can feel it trying to break. Leafburst and catkins, crocuses and snowdrops, daffodils, lambs in the fields, more and more birds joining the chorus. Chattering passers-by and the low growl of buses and taxis fade into the background, and cease to matter.
We did finally see off January yesterday. The weather on the first day of February was mild and the dampness of the air smelled somehow sweeter. Insects could feel it, breaking cover into the sunlight, wings a frenzied blur. Black-headed gulls rode the breeze for the sheer hell of it, as far as we could make out. The blackbird abandoned a loftier perch, descended to the small trees in the square, and began to sing all the more loudly. Much cold weather may remain ahead and storms both political and meteorological loom on the horizon, but in that moment the year’s promise was already fulfilled in a bird’s song. It was all that mattered.
A thousand clichés, of which I have been known to indulge, portray winter landscapes as lifeless. I’m trying not to see them that way. These bare trees caught my eye as I left campus yesterday afternoon, and I endeavoured to remember that these are complex living organisms – not merely part of the scenery. I imagined the deep system of roots that quests beneath the ground for nutrients and water, mirroring the way their branches stretch up toward the light.
The second best time to admire winter trees is at sunrise or sunset. The low sun bounces back from their trunks, kindling another set of clichés to do with fire and flame. No, perhaps the second best time to admire winter trees is after a heavy fall of wet snow. The kind that sticks fast to even the most vertical branches, concealing everything in dazzling white.
The best time is at dusk. Their image sinks into blackness, stark against the twilight. Squint and your eyes play tricks of perspective. Are those flat tree cut-outs in the foreground, or are the trees the true reality, possessing the beyond-darkness of deep space? They are certainly other worlds, part of the same rich tapestry of life, known by science yet moving in ways and in dimensions of time and space that are far outside our human experience.
I never achieve everything I intend to in any given year. Not even close. Doubtless it would be better for my health not to make any plans at all. There is, however, something inevitable about the impulse to measure our lives by the calendar. My annual sense of having fallen short is one reason for a touch of seasonal malaise, though Christmas also brings a sense of grateful relief. Nothing more will get done this year, so I may as well rest and enjoy all that the festivities will bring. A second source of gloom for this year is the uncertainty with which many of us face 2017. It may be time to ‘look to the future’, but it’s an unknowable future still shrouded in smoke from the fires of the past 12 months.
My chief solace in the heart of an uncertain winter has been the sound of birds warming up their syrinxes for spring. Robins sing pretty much year round; in Berkshire this December song thrushes, blackbirds, dunnocks and great tits all join them in the chorus well ahead of the solstice. Blackbirds, especially, have stopped me in my tracks several times as I allow their rich, fluid music to calm me. Whilst still I begin to notice other signs of winter life, such as the mating clouds of midges that emerge like smoke in the weak afternoon sun.
Birdsong and swarming flies are not unusual on mild winter days, not even on bright-but-cold ones, though of course unusually warm weather could be a sign of climate change throwing seasonal cycles further out of whack. Yet somehow I am able to forget about portents of global catastrophe and experience these wonders with simple joy. Nature doesn’t have all the answers to the ills of our age, but there is still healing to be found in the uncomplicated lives of wild things that, as Wendell Berry beautifully put it, ‘do not tax their lives with forethought of grief’. So long as such wild life remains in the world, there is hope.
Willow bud bursting on the 18th of December.