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27 January 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 2:03pm

The bleak midwinter: when everything comes to a halt and even the mind stands fallow

These brief seasons occur throughout the year, the slight lull before the snowdrops; the stillness of midsummer when all growth is at its height.

By John Burnside

It was either “bleak” or “deep”, that much we knew. My sister insisted it was one, I knew it was the other, but we never picked up the hymn books in the foyer so we couldn’t check. After that, we were agreed, it went:

Frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone

It’s an image of desolation that I loved. I love it still, as an unnamed season to itself when everything comes to a halt. No evidence of life, no movement; no sign, even, of the buzzard that patrols the fence lines around our little plot, and almost no sound. This is a time for the mind to stand fallow, a time to be attentive to what Wallace Stevens called “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”. In a moment, or an hour, the snow will come again, drifting sidewise across the garden, or falling as fat, silvery flakes through the porch light when we come home from work or school – and that new shift will deserve its own observance.

These brief seasons occur throughout the year. The slight lull before the snowdrops open; the stillness of midsummer when all growth is at its height. That sense of an ending that comes with the last windfall, the wasps gone, the pocked bladders of fallen apples and medlars softly folding into the future.

These miniature seasons – a matter of days, or even hours – are needful, not only in the cycles of the land, but to our well-being, for they mark pauses in the drama of seed burst, bud break, florescence, fruiting and decay, occasions in the only calendar that matters, which is the earth itself. If we observe these occasions, this calendar offers frequent rehearsals of the eternal, reminding us that time doesn’t flow through our clocks and calendars, it merely stalls there.

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Our pagan ancestors knew the importance of marking such occasions, which is why the day we call Candlemas (if we notice it at all) was, for them, Oimelc or Imbolc: the name comes from Celtic words for “ewe” and “milk”, marking the birth of the new lambs – an important occasion, since milk for the lambs meant milk for people, too. Other pagan traditions also had feasts at this time. “February” comes from the Roman god Februus, whose festival of purification almost certainly gave rise to the Christian Candlemas.

All these festivals originated in response to natural events – where they were encumbered by the divine, that burden was a later adjunct. Our real feast days are based upon a fine-grained attention to nature and a need to harmonise human lives with the world around us. As the great Scottish folklorist James Napier observed:

Alongside the intelligence everywhere observable in the operations of nature, churchmen placed their own passionate humanity, they projected themselves into the universe and anthropomorphised nature. Thus came men to regard natural phenomena as manifestations of supernatural agency…

Churchmanship, Napier said, acted as a distorting medium, “twisting and displacing things out of their natural relations”.

If only those churchmen understood that no amount of liturgical smoke and mirrors can make up for simply standing, in the supposed dead of winter, staring out at a snowy field and practising the discipline of seeing “Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is”. We might have enjoyed a mortal kinship with nature, rather than two millennia of religious wars and superstition. 

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power