seasons

Midwinter mystery

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I wanted to watch the sun rise through the standing stones on the winter solstice.

In truth, the true magic was supposed to happen at sunset: the last of the day’s light beaming through the passageways of the southwest-facing cairns and spilling over the ancient dead like a gift, for a few precious moments in this one important hour every year, for four thousand years.

But sunset in mid December was at 3.30 in the afternoon, and I knew we’d probably still be out. We had made plans to visit a tiny village close to Nairn, and walk ten kilometres though fields to see Cawdor Castle in the distance, the seat of my distant Calder relatives. Probably, I thought, we’d still be driving home at sunset. (We were).

And the forecast was for rain in the afternoon, anyway.

So we hurried down our breakfast and left in the dark, arriving just in time to watch the dawn instead, as it coloured the ancient wood in gold, and sent the fairies shimmering back into the shadows, seconds before the sun’s rays broke then burst over the nearby hills.

My family wandered with me for a few minutes but then retreated to the relative warmth of the car, leaving me to explore the cairns and stones alone.

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For a little while, I pulled my gloves off and rested my fingertips on the ancient standing stones, letting the earth’s currents flow up through that quiet ground and the lichen-covered stone, then coursing into my hands and grounding my body in nature and history.

Four thousand years. It’s an almost unthinkable age to me but, to our planet, those stones are little more than the passing acne of adolescence on the surface of time.

The stones were sharp with ice, and smooth inside the “cups,” little circular dips carved out with stone or antler tools, patiently worked by human hands millennia ago. Hands just like mine, maybe even genetically related to mine, but on people leading lives so different to my experience it is impossible to fathom that which binds us.

Except this earth. This dawn. These stones. They are our constant, linking me to them and them to me as though time did not matter and they had just - just - left, melting away into shadows with the fairies mere moments before I arrived with the sun.

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Who were they?

These ancient ancestors of ours positioned the cairns to catch the solstice sunset, and graded the standing stones around them according to astronomical axes. Those that face the sunrise are smaller and whiter, while those placed toward the sunset are larger and the lichen, when scraped away, reveals stones of pink and red.

Artists of the earth.

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While I stood alone and watched, the morning sun pierced a cleft stone in the lonely field.

On a whim, I stepped behind the stone and let the cut-light pierce and refract over my face, closing my eyes to the gold, and turning it red beneath my lids.

What do you think it means, that split stone? It is not the biggest nor the most impressive of the standing stones that guard these cairns, but the cleft feels strange, not something you see in nature, and to me it feels like a question. Two almost identical pieces of stone, side by side, kissing at the base but pushing one another apart at the shoulders, creating unearthly shadows and bending the sun’s rays and creating a hard-to-pin-down sense of unease.

Like listening to your parents argue in the next room.

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Our humanity unites us throughout the millennia. These stones are part of me and I am part of them. But what do they mean?

A seasonal shift

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The weekend before we left the village forever, they turned the Christmas lights on. I stepped out of our apartment in the twilight to go to the post office, and hadn’t taken two steps before the entire town burst back into light.

Christmas trees on every corner glowed with colour, rainbow twinkle lights floated in swathes above the cobblestones, intricate patterns of light made snowflakes above crossroads, and every laneway seemed touched with magic.

I raced back from the post office to call the family outside, and together we strolled through the wonderland, marvelling at each new discovery. It seemed as though almost the entire village had had the same idea, we were all, young and old, wandering the town in joy, and the streets were filled with the sounds of “Ooh!” and “Ahh!”, punctuated by church bells.

It felt like a fitting farewell to this town that we had called home for almost four months. From summer to winter, we watched the town transition from full bloom (and full to the brim) to a kind of turning-inwards, resting and readying for winter, and every new face on our town has been lovely.

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In the summer, the streets hummed with tourists. The glacerie did a roaring trade, with towering coronets of triple-flavoured home-made ice creams, and markets filled with handicrafts lined the street underneath the ancient clock tower, every day. A horse and carriage clopped underneath our window every hour or so, and a miniature train carrying retired German tourists chugged over the cobblestones all day long.

We would wander down to the river in the sweltering heat, and sit on the stone edges with our feet in the water to cool off, or take a ride on the canal boat that took tourists to Lehon and back all day long (always telling the story, in two languages, of how if something happened to the horses pulling the canal-boats in the past, the captain’s wife would have to don a harness and drag that boat along the little river herself).

On Wednesdays, the square beneath our window, in front of the ancient basilica, would fill with stalls of antique toys and books and curios for sale. Scout wore a hand-woven “love knot” around her wrist, woven by a local woman at the market. Ralph found a red tin van that had once held chocolates. I picked up a 300-year-old writing desk, and a hand-painted ceramic kugelhopf mould from a famous artists in Alsace.

Everything in Dinan was alive. The geraniums in the pots outside our windows burst into extravagant colour, and the dancing light seemed to filter inside, even before dawn. There were jazz concerts in the square below us, sending music into our living room through the open windows until after midnight, while we ate crackers and cheese and sipped rosé, and I painted the memories of our grand adventure.

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And then the wind turned cold.

As the seasons changed, so did the village. The glacerie closed its shutters for the last time in the year, as did our favourite boulanger, and many of the shops and restaurants taped handwritten signs to their closed shutters: fermé jusqu'en décembre (closed until December).

It was a lot easier to move around the town without the crowds, and the children never had to wait for a space on the tourniquet in the playground, and the cafes and bistros that did remain open started selling vin chaud (hot wine).

The breeze picked up, and the trees changed colour. Gold dominated, but there was also brown, orange, and crimson in the mix. On windy days, the sky would rain colour. We collected conkers and walnuts, and roasted found chestnuts. The chemin des pommiers (apple path) below the castle walls was slick with fallen, rotting apples, a picturesque death-trap to any who ventured down that steep slope.

I walked the children to childcare in the golden glare of sunrise, and home again in the dark. On days off, we started frequenting a deli where the paninis were particularly good, and the proprietress was super-friendly towards the children. In fact, everyone grew friendlier, now that the throngs and crowds had melted away.

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And then one dark afternoon, they turned the Christmas lights on.

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Winter's coming

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I have trimmed all the wild and rampant late-summer flowers of my garden back into neat, stumpy little mounds. Bending close, I can just see the buds of spring's growth waiting there, sleeping now until the southern hemisphere circles back closer to the sun. The pomegranate, crepe myrtle and Japanese maple trees are all putting on colour, and dropping leaves like golden confetti at our feet.

Twice a week when I go out early to exercise in the still-dark, the cold air hits like a slap when I open the front door, and my fingers and toes are numb from wind and wet grass* before we even get started. But when we all lie down on our yoga mats to prepare for crunches, I look up, up, beyond the black outlines of the trees, to a sky that is so full of stars they look like rain-drops, frozen in time, and it is perfect. And is that Venus I can see, glowing so big and bright? Why is the sky so much cleaner and more... precise... when it's cold? Dawn breaks somewhere in between plank-holds and left-hook punches, and mist makes clouds of our puffing breaths, before real mist rolls up and over the park, and swirls like a familiar cat around our ankles. 

We have pulled our winter hats and scarves and coats out of storage, and I have turned my thoughts once again to soups and casseroles and mulled wine and home-baked bread. I am even ready to befriend the slow-cooker

Knitted gloves and wooly socks, wading and dancing through rivers of fallen leaves, watching the Christmas pine-cones pop and crackle in the open fire, toasting marshmallows, baking good things with apples, and lighting candles at meal-times. Winter's coming, my friends! 

 

*Wet shoes and socks are the WORST

8 autumn-winter plans

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It's no secret that I love winter. I am no friend of heat and humidity, but I love the sting of cold on my cheeks, and the sight of my breath in the air in the morning.

I also love crocheted nanna-rugs, hot chocolates, bed-socks, mac-n-cheese, and flannel shirts. I like hiking up mountains or along city streets without breaking a sweat, the smell of wood fires after dark, candles at dinner-time, and lazy bubble-baths on weekends.

After what felt like the longest summer in the history of all the summers, we are finally seeing the start of autumn. So, just in case this is also the shortest winter in the history of all the winters, I have made some plans to make the most of the cooler months.

1. Learn how to bake bread really well. I've enrolled in a bread-making class at Abbotsford Bakery next month that I'm really looking forward to

2. Take the children to see snow

3. Go bushwalking. Now that the hot weather has gone and the snakes are asleep, I want to get back out among the trees

4. Forage for wild mushrooms in the pine forest. There are guided tours that take you on these foraging missions, to be sure the mushrooms are actually mushrooms, not toadstools. I've been wanting to do this for ages, but nobody wants to come with me. Will you?

5. Take better care of my skin. One of the down-sides to winter is the damage all that dry air and internal heating does to your skin. When I lived in New York, I was great at using scrubs and moisturisers to protect my skin. I'm older now so it's even more important that I make the effort

6. Dig, prune and nurture. I keep a seasonal diary to remind me what needs to happen in my garden. In the coming months, that will mean formwork pruning of some plants, heavy cutbacks to others, sowing some seeds, fertilising, aerating the soil, and applying a thick mulch to protect it

7. Make friends with the slow-cooker. I tell myself I'll do this every year. This is the year!

8. Rug up and have a winter picnic. I'll pack thermoses of hot chocolate or tea, knee-rugs as well as picnic rugs, beanies, and candles or possibly a little campfire. We will find somewhere pretty, and our picnic will look like this

How about you? What are your plans for winter? What should I add to my list?

Image credits: Daniel Bowman // Siebe Warmoeskerken // Annie Spratt // Samuel Scrimshaw