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.