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18 December 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:54pm

Why the bleak midwinter is not as dull, cold and silent as it first seems

By John Burnside

There is a place I like to visit at this time of year, a narrow plot of land at the dark end of an old cemetery, just far enough from the nearest village that, on cold days, when there is no wind, it falls as close to silent as it is possible to come in these overcrowded islands.

“Midwinter spring is its own season,” says TS Eliot – and so it is. But this plot allows me a glimpse of a variant season, a point so distant in spirit from the bustle of the town that I think of it as the year’s fallow, a necessary hiatus that, as still and hard and silent as it may appear, is the very origin of all growth.

In the industrial age, the idea of a natural fallow – of periodically leaving land unsown, to restore the quality of the soil – has come to seem quaint; yet fallow was once a central experience and a basic tenet in all our dealings with the land – and with our own energies. A beginner gardener learns much from the kindly seasons about sowing seeds, or pruning, or gathering an abundant harvest, but the more we attune to natural rhythms, the more we learn from the deep midwinter, when the land itself is so cold and still as to seem beyond recovery.

The Antiguan writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid remarked that gardening in chilly Vermont taught her how best to live, as it allowed her “to appreciate the times when things are fallow and when they’re not”. When I come here on a brutally cold day and nobody else is about, I am reminded that the appreciation of fallowness is, in itself, an art.

This wintry and very transient retreat of mine is more or less disused, even in summer. At one time, whoever came to tend the graves in the cemetery erected a compost bin in one corner, and there are terracotta sherds and slivers of pottery scattered here and there on the frozen soil. But the closest anything comes to picturesque is that moment in the early afternoon, when the sunlight pales and wastes away in a fret of birch twigs, or when a patch of snow-melt thaws, then freezes again, in a lacework of fallen leaves.

As the larger part of the plot is shaded, I cannot linger as long as I might like these days, for the cold seeps through my coat and into my bones, leaving me numb and impatient – and it is sensitivity, and calm contemplation, that I am after. Still, having stood a while, drinking in the quiet – and on some days, dare I say, something close to silence – I can still feel renewed, and strengthened for the return to my normal habitat.

For practical reasons, that habitat is all noise, all busyness. How could it not be, in a society that predicates everything of worth on, not steady, not even constant, but insistent and unrelenting growth. Or rather: on what we think of as growth, an activity we recognise only when it is sufficiently noisy and fast and ephemeral as to be more than a little irritating to the spirit.

It takes only an average gardener’s appreciation of fallow to see that self-sustaining growth – in which the principal measure of success is quality – is not noisy at all, but musical, a process by which things emerge from the silence of fallow and develop spontaneously, according to their given nature, along organic lines.

Fallow is a time of stillness, of chill, but it is also an opportunity to see through a spendthrift “growth” economy (as Izaak Walton has it) “like the silkworm, that, when she seems to play, is at the very same time consuming herself”. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

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This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning