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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The turning of the year

Posted on November 26 2009 at 9:54:53 0 comments

Frosty teasels

Mary Green celebrates the natural cycle of changing seasons.

It has been a lovely autumn, with the tree colour enhanced by the mild, sunny and dry “Indian summer” we had in October, and a great season for fruit. The strong winds in November meant that the leaves disappeared from the trees quickly, and now as I write only our lovely English oaks have their bronze leaves. I wonder what the weather will be like when you read this. Last year, we were on our third lot of snow!

I have been watching the beautiful Hunters’ Moon – the full moon of November. Each full moon through the year has a name, though most of us only know the Harvest Moon, nearest to the autumn equinox. There will be two full moons this December, the Cold Moon on the 2nd and the Long Night Moon on the 31st – the latter also known as a Blue Moon as the second in the month.

Many of the moons are named after wildlife and weather (Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Rose Moon, for example.) They are still celebrated in parts of the USA, as they have a strong Native American tradition. Most religions include the moon in their calendars – in the case of Christianity the Paschal Moon determines the date of Easter.

In December and January we are always aware of the old year dying and the new one beginning. Watching wildlife makes you very conscious of the changing seasons, and the complexity of climate, plant, animal and human systems in those changes.

Winter is an important season for us and the rest of our world. The trees have shed their leaves to retain their energies for new growth. And you can see this new growth already. The buds are there, sitting quietly behind the shed leaves, and the catkins are already formed on hazels. Some berry-bearing trees, like hawthorn, show their fruits on bare twigs long past the leaves.

Animals go quiet, though only the hedgehogs and dormice truly hibernate. Birds, too, are generally quiet (or have flown south) except of course for the robin, which is so aggressively territorial that it sings through the winter. But by the solstice (December 21) you will begin to hear the two-note call of the great tit again, establishing its territory and preparing to mate.

Some birds fly in from the north for the winter. You should see redwings and fieldfares, from the thrush family, especially if we get some cold weather, stripping hawthorn berries. Even blackbirds and thrushes migrate, and if you hear them being noisy in the autumn and winter they may be new arrivals.

Of course, for Christmas we look to our native evergreens. There are only a few: holly, ivy, yew, pine, mistletoe. They have been brought indoors to celebrate the undying-ness of nature since time immemorial. Until relatively recently, though, Christmas Day itself wasn’t much celebrated except as a religious feast. January New Year too is relatively recent - and didn’t have a bank holiday here until the 1970s.

Twelfth Night (the feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings) was the real celebration day, with fires, decorated houses, plays, mummers, music, food and drink, presents, and the ancient festival of misrule. The latter meant turning the world upside down for a day, with masters waiting on servants, boys being elected bishop for a day, and men dressing as women, as always seems to happen in carnivals – and now in pantomimes.

Spanish countries still celebrate the Three Kings festival on Twelfth Night. It was also “old Christmas” in the old Julian calendar.

Like wildlife, we slow down and withdraw into our homes and families, lighting fires to keep warm. However, our winter festivals are outgoing, all about giving and sharing food, drink and music, to drive away the darkness. Since Victorian times all the winter solstice customs here have centred on Christmas and New Year.

Some people don’t like “commercialisation”, but it means this is the most widely celebrated of all festivals, as it is integrated into modern life. And it still carries the ancient within it, the time of winter darkness in which nature is just beginning to reawaken to the light. We light the fires, give each other red robin cards and pick holly, to help it all along. 

We take our calendar for granted, but Britain only adopted the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century, much later than the rest of Europe. When it came in we “lost” 11 days, and some people doggedly followed the “old” Julian calendar for centuries afterwards.

New Year was set at January 1 by Julius Caesar, but many Christians didn’t accept this new year, and wanted Lady Day (the Annunciation or conception of Christ) to be the Christian new year. For centuries the New Year was celebrated in late March in Christian countries. The financial new year is a relic of this.

Within the Gregorian calendar there are some older markers of the year. We have two solstices, summer and winter, and two equinoxes, spring and autumn. Even modern business, with its bankers and bonuses, still has quarter days originally based on these events. These now fall on March 25, June 24, September 29 and December 25 (Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas).

Halfway between each was an ancient Celtic festival, some later Christianised – Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lughnasa (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween). Lots of changes in nature have become traditionally associated with these events, for example blackberries being over (“ruined by the devil”) on September 29 (Michaelmas) or snowdrops appearing for Candlemas, which is also a weather-predicting day.

Agriculture has added a dimension with festivals to celebrate the planting, growing, fruiting and harvesting of crops. In Christian countries these are often matched with saints’ days. I still plant my potatoes on Good Friday! The main relic we have of this old country calendar is the academic calendar, with its long summer holiday (for harvest) and new year in autumn (the start of preparation for the next year).

Almost all calendar festivals have wildlife traditions associated with them. But of course wildlife has a calendar of its own. Plants come up, flower, seed, die down, lose their leaves and grow, depending on a combination of temperature, moisture and light.

Insects are influenced by temperature and the availability of plant and other habitats and food. Mammals and birds are dependent on particular plant, insect or other animal foods being there. Some of them move around the world, too.

All of this can be disrupted by unexpected changes in the weather, or even the result of weather in the previous year. This is one of the things that make wildlife so fascinating. There is a basic familiar cycle year to year, but you never quite know when things are going to happen.

A relatively new science, called phenology, has grown up around the natural cycle. It involves noting the key stages in plant and animal growth and movement over a long period of years and looking at the patterns. Sometimes amateur naturalists have played a significant part in this – people who have kept diaries of their local wildlife for 50 years have had them snapped up by scientists.

These records have enabled us to know that climate change has changed the overall pattern in England, though for short periods the trend can be in opposite directions. This reminds us that there is a difference between climate – long-term weather patterns – and weather – relatively short-term ones.

An example is the flowering of the archetypal British tree, the hawthorn (also known as whitethorn or may). Traditionally it was brought in to celebrate May Day, so was expected to flower for the first of May. If you read books from about 50 years ago, they point out that this must have been the “old May Day” (Julian calendar) which was a fortnight later.

I remember as a child that may was in flower on my birthday at the end of May, and was often associated with Whitsun. Now, due to climate change, may is once again usually in flower for the first of May on our calendar.

However, due to weather, it varies from year to year, and from place to place. In 2003 and 2004 I first saw it in flower on April 21. In 2005 it was later, April 29, though I saw it out in Cornwall on April 8. In the cold spring of 2006 it didn’t appear till May 7. The next year, a mild one, it was April 15, and in Cornwall I found it on March 26.

It was more back to normal in 2008 on April 27. This year I was quite surprised to see it on April 23, after our exceptionally harsh winter which made blackthorn and plum late. The good weather of March and April was enough to get the may back on track.

Compare this with the first flowering time of blackthorn. Over the same period this has ranged from February 4 to April 8. Early spring weather is especially variable. In 2007, the very mild winter, I found it flowering near Rowney Green on February 4, though I had actually found a single flower near the canal on January 4! In the very cold spring of 2006, it didn’t appear until April 8.

Last year, 2008, after a mild start to spring it flowered much on time on March 4. However, after the frosts and snows of April there were hardly any fruits (sloes) later. The cold early spring this year made it late, not appearing till March 26. But by then the weather was good, so we have a bumper harvest of sloes this year for our Christmas sloe gin. So, a happy Twelfth Night, Yule, Christmas and New Year to you all! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my observations as much as I enjoy writing them.

Next year I shall concentrate my nature notes on particular places and walks in the area where you can watch wildlife and the turning of the year.

Twelfth Night

I burn the holly and the cards
Good flames in the night
One piece of mistletoe left over the lintel.
Everywhere people take down their Santas
Switch off their pretty lights.

I walk at night
I have the night back
And the light

The dark holly glistens around me
Above star after star weaves patterns
Falling among the snowdrop leaves.
The turning earth thrusts the trees into bud
Catkins yawn and stretch themselves

At dawn, a robin sings
The chaffinches of my mind join him.

Sun streams into my house.
The fool of misrule
Kicks up his red and white skirts
And my heart laughs.


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