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29 January 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:02pm

A time to break down, and a time to build: the beauty of midwinter

The cruellest winter is as much part of regeneration as any season of abundance.

By John Burnside

Mid-January in Massachusetts: if there is a “still point of the turning world”, it may well be here and now, on this woodland trail near Andover, every tree stripped back to its essentials – twig, bark and hard, seemingly lifeless buds glistening with frost, the flora of a winter landscape immersed in that stage of its life cycle at which it appears that nothing will ever bloom or break again.

It is seemly that the buds should be as dark and hard as stone: how else would they endure this bitter cold? It is seemly, too, that the grasses of the little cemetery next to Phillips Academy should have shrivelled to a network of hard roots and rhizomes in that frozen ground. The world must be peopled but this is how it endures. When water and warmth are plentiful, the woods run riot; when autumn comes, every last plant sows its abundance of seed; in the depths of winter, even the hardiest and the fiercest settle into dormancy, as necessary a stage as growth, not only in plants but in all living beings.

“To every thing there is a season,” Ecclesiastes tells us, including “a time to break down, and a time to build up . . ./A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away”. The natural world demonstrates this at every turn. Cycles of profusion and dormancy are integral to what Spinoza calls nature’s “universal laws and rules” – and he urges us, in our actions and policies, to observe those rules for the greater good of all. Nature’s “laws and ordinances . . . are everywhere and always the same; so that there should be one and the same method of understanding the nature of all things whatsoever”.

The foundational texts of Taoism, such as the Tao Te Ching, begin from the proposition that, for human affairs to be well ordered and productive, they must be performed in accordance with the natural order. Meanwhile, Rilke says it all in three lines: “If we surrendered/to earth’s intelligence/we could rise up rooted, like trees.”

To rise up rooted, we must learn how to live according to nature’s cycles, even when we cultivate and create human artifices. One of the things that preoccupies me in wintertime is my porch full of subtropical plants – tender, sometimes succulent bodies that could not endure a British winter but that I insist on growing for the beauty of the flowers. With the optimum amount of water and nutrition – not too much – and the usual dimness of a Scottish winter, those plants can be preserved (unnaturally, I admit) for another year. Overwatered, they will rot in a night; too much sun, and they produce spindly stems that may fail in the spring. Managed carefully, they survive.

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The watchword here is “optimum”. In nature, growth is a maximum, paid for by times of dormancy, of winter stillness and the tight promise of a bud. Nothing in nature grows all the time. Grasses rise tall and go back to the earth; roses spice this summer’s air with scent and colour, then seal up next summer in hard, fur-lined hips. Owls lay more eggs when the season promises an abundance of prey, and fewer in times of coming scarcity.

Yet, for some reason, the only model for human economies that we seem able to tolerate is one of constant, depletive growth, in which the soil is allowed barely a moment’s fallow, or is inappropriately drained and farmed, and our food is produced under conditions that would sicken anyone. Meanwhile, in Britain at least, we can look forward to even less agricultural regulation after Brexit, leading to further monocropping and loss of hedgerows and fewer farm inspections.

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All these practices flout natural law. Yet the secrets of a good life lie before us, for anyone to see, not in a set of legal strictures but in the workings of the natural world, where even a cold winter’s day has much to teach us.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West