Winterlude

By Matt Miles

As I write this, another holiday season is passing into memory while the current year expires and a new one waits to be born. With the Winter Solstice just past, the days are once again lengthening even as they turn colder in the long months before the green pulse of spring quickens and growth returns to the land. This particular time of year feels to me like nothing so much as that brief moment of stillness between inhalation and exhalation, the equilibrium point between expansion and contraction, that brief instant of stasis and silence that comes with every breath.

In winter, many animals hibernate or go dormant, dialing down their metabolisms to ride out this time of scarcity and cold, huddled together in dens, perhaps. Trees and many plants have shed their leaves or died back to the roots, showing few signs of life—above ground, at least. It is easy to look on these winter months with dread or despair, to see them as a time of tedium to be gotten through before the warmth of the sun, and the vibrant life it brings, returns. But for me winter is a time of rest and regeneration, a germinal period of ferment and reflection in which ideas, thoughts, plans, and notions of all kinds—which will perhaps come to fruition later on in the year—can begin their development.

Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between seasons—the varying phases of birth, growth, death, and rebirth—more obvious or evident than on a farm. Having lived much of my life in cities and suburbs before moving onto a farmstead in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the change of seasons was for me until recently mainly just a change of weather. For the most part, there was no real connection in my life to the cyclical phases of the natural world. Certainly things like shortening daylight and the dropping leaves in autumn did not escape my notice, but in the urban and suburban environments I was used to, I found myself—in retrospect anyway—mostly cut off from nature. Modern conveniences like electric lighting, climate control systems, global trade, and processed foods, for example, have done much to push back the natural limits that once kept most of our lives closer in step with nature’s cycles and seasons.

On a farm though, it’s impossible not to notice these natural cycles everywhere. Ducks and chickens molt several times a year and sit nests in the spring and the summer, while their egg production falls off with the shorter days of winter as their bodies rest and regenerate. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens will, with any luck, produce a harvest at the end of the growing season. But before the growing season can even begin, seeds must be ordered, branches must be pruned, root stock grafted onto cuttings, seedlings started indoors: All of these things happen in the winter months between the start and the end of the growing season and close the loop on what is really a never-ending cycle.

Farmers too, no less than the crops and livestock they raise, are subject to the natural rhythms of the seasons. Old adages like “Make hay while the sun shines” reflect the necessity of working in tandem with nature, even if these days technology has mitigated some of the risks and uncertainty in agriculture. But even with modern conveniences like tractors and seeders, farming is still hard work, most of which must by its very nature take place during the long days of the growing season. After months of hard work growing and harvesting produce, the farmer needs a  season of rest and regeneration as much as the land or the plants and animals living on it.

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In winter the land shows the contrast between seasons like nothing else. After the frosts have come and the leaves have fallen, all but the most cold hardy plants have died back or gone dormant. A few late greens hang on in the vegetable garden as splotches of emerald here and there, but the tomatoes and chiles that were thriving just a couple months back seem like a distant memory. Likewise, the vibrant colors of autumn leaves have since faded, revealing a landscape that is bare and almost monochrome in comparison. The dull yellows, browns, grays and blacks, lit by a dim and distant sun, can seem bare and empty during the winter months, but potential too is revealed by absence. Like a blank sheet of paper or an uncarved block of stone, the farmstead in winter is a medium for creative and productive possibilities to come into being.

As a writer and a poet, it is certainly easier on a practical level to get work done during the winter months, when physical labor is less important and the cold and darkness argue for more time spent indoors. But here too, I find my mind reflecting the qualities of the landscape in its season. Old ideas, themes and sensibilities wither and fade while space for new growth and intellectual development opens up.

More than just the fresh start of an arbitrary new year and its traditional resolutions, the literal blank space of the landscape is figuratively mirrored in the imagination not as a barren waste but as a fertile ground from which new ideas can emerge. While the land and the life it sustains rests and regenerates, my mind is free to wander unburdened by many of the concerns normally present during the growing season. There is time and space to ponder deeply.

The stasis and stillness of winter here offers for me a kind of respite from noise and distraction in which clarity of thought and a focused intent can prevail. While the fresh mindset that comes with the new calendar year may encourage us to change old habits, learn new practices or skills, or to re-engage with previously abandoned or forgotten endeavors, it is this space and slowness of the winter months that facilitates growth and allows room for development.

It may be the absence of a thing that brings the ideal conception of that thing into so much greater focus. Just as the biting cold of winter makes me long for the gentle warmth of a sunny summer day, my memory is also inclined to discount the oppressive heat and humidity, the constant drenching downpours, that made so much of the last summer miserable for me. When summer is yet again upon us and I’m dripping with sweat, I’ll remember the peace and stillness of a dark, clear winter night—the tang of woodsmoke rising into an impossibly starry sky. And for the time being, the peace and stillness outside as the world slows down to catch its breath is a welcome respite.

It’s this seasonal, cyclical nature of time then that defines and distinguishes the individual events and circumstances that make up our lives. Without the balanced phases of rest and activity, stasis and movement, emergence and retreat, life becomes a tedious, meaningless, and ultimately unsustainable exercise.

In a society that values limitless growth above all else, and one from which the presence of natural cycle has for so many of us been diminished, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of the rest and stasis embodied by the natural world in the winter months. On the other hand, if we can incorporate into our lives the regenerative potential of stillness, rest, and reflection inherent in the season, we’ll be better able to appreciate and sustain our own growth and activity when the time again comes for these things.

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