Winter Reading

51h3We7+wILOver the winter months I’ve been reading Melissa Harrison’s Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, published in support of the Wildlife Trusts. I’m not normally a fan of ‘slow reading’ – I tend to rush through a book to find out what happens (I’ve even been known to sneak a peak at the end to see if all goes well), then re-read at leisure. But as I get older I find I’m slowing down, and this book is an ideal ‘slow read’, perfect for considering one, or possibly two, entries each day, usually last thing at night when I can savour the words and reflect on the thoughts expressed. Anyway, today is the Spring Equinox and, as planned, I’ve come to the end and am am now embarking on a similar journey with Harrison’s Spring, which I aim to finish on Midsummer Day.

It’s been quite interesting reading during the periods of snow. After all, as Harrison says in her introduction: “When we think of winter, we often think of snow: deep drifts of it, blanketing our rooftops and gardens, roofs, fields and lanes; white and silent and still.” But she is quick to point out that winter means much more than snow. And here she’s gathered extracts from a variety of authors who see winter in many different ways; man’s place in the natural world, and his reaction to it, comes under scrutiny, and there are pieces about the weather, the stars, birds, insects, animals, plants, landscapes and habitats. There are offerings from keen-eyed naturalists and conservationists, who not only record what they see and hear, but have the ability to relate it to their own lives, and to the world in general. Alongside their observations are poems and excerpts from novels, letters, essays, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles and blogs. The collection spans some 400 years, and includes authors whose creations were printed in traditional books, as well as writers who use modern technology to display their work.

The book takes us from the tail end of autumn, through the depths of winter, to the point when we know spring is on the way. It opens with the late great Roger Deakin talking about a ‘sharp, sugaring frost’ and its effect on the leaves of the trees, and closes with a prose piece from poet Kathleen Jamie. “Every year in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky,” she says, and adds: “The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.”

Sandwiched between those two is a wealth of other goodies. In fact, the book is so jam-packed with wonderful things that it’s difficult (and unfair) to pick favourites, but I have to mention Charles Dickens’ matchless description of the mud, fog and rain of ‘implacable November weather’ and Virginia Woolf’s magical, mystical account of a frost fair (from Orlando, which I haven’t read, but I will now). I shan’t forget freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s first enounter with snow, or Henry Williamson’s description of a howling blizzard which made me feel chilled to the bone. But there were two entries which really stood out for me.

First there is a letter from poet and children’s author Anna Laetitia Barbauld, written in 1814, which could almost be describing some kind of seasonal affective disorder. She’s not exactly unhappy – indeed, she seems relish the warmth and comfort of her snug parlour, but she is certainly in the grip of a winter inertia which prevents her taking any kind of action or thought, and I’m sure many of us can empathise with her. She writes:

“There are animals that sleep all the winter; – I am, I believe, become one of them: they creep into holes during the same season; – I have confined myself to the fireside of a snug parlour. If, indeed, a warm sunshiney day occurs, they sometimes creep out of their holes; – so, now and then, have I. They exist in a state of torpor, – so have I done: the only difference being, that I have all the while continued the habit of eating and drinking, which, to their advantage, they can dispense with. But my mind has certainly been asleep all the while; and whenever I have attempted to employ it, I have felt an oppression in my head which has obliged me to desist.”

My second stand-out entry is Anita Sethi’s moving account of the garden she and her mother began creating at their Manchester home one winter. Looking back on her childhood Sethi, now a journalist, writer and critic, explains how it helped develop her sense of identity. She writes: “Cultivating our garden was also a process cultivating deeper and richer sense of self, a sense of calm in the self, of comfort to the skin, a greater understanding of a connection wit the earth, even here in the heart of the inner city.” I loved this, and they way Sethi sees winter as a time of renewal and growth, of connections, hope, light, new beginings and belonging. It was such a positive and uplifting story.

Harrison’s choices – and what the authors have to say – is sometimes unexpected, but they will all make you think. As with any anthology I found myself considering things I would have included, and there were a few I couldn’t engage with, but over all I found it an enchanting book, and enjoyed re-visiting old favourites and making the acquaintance of authors I hadn’t come across before, but definitely want to explore further (there are brief biographical details of contributors, but I’d advise keeping a pen and paper to hand, so you can note down titles and authors if you want to read more). Her aim, apparently, was to celebrate living landscapes, and to inspire people to get out and enjoy the countryside and wildlife. With all the terrible things happening in the world at the moment, this may seem small and unimportant, but I think she’s right. There is a need to conserve and preserve our wildlife, but apart from that, walking in the countryside can make you feel better, physically and mentally, and even in urban areas there are usually parks and green spaces, and however small they are, and whatever the season, you can always find something to look at – a bird, an insect, a flower in bloom.