Like most gardeners, I’m a firm believer in celebration. Almost any event or occasion can be taken as an excuse both to make merry and to be consciously grateful together. The first snowdrops, the first flower on the hardy cyclamen, the first bright bells on the nodding hellebores, the first spangle of stars on the winter jasmine, all are cause for shared pleasure and appreciation.
The mystic philosopher-musician, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, told her flock back in 1142 that people were cast out of the original garden for ingratitude, and that being properly grateful was the way back. Hildegard’s medieval hymns and prayers offer genuine delight in what IS, rather than a plea for the provision of what is not.
The Practice of Gratitude
For gardeners, this kind of gratitude comes easily. Who can walk unmoved through the garden in any season, surrounded by such astonishing beauty and such generously flowing abundance? Even in winter, we can find innumerable signs of life and change. Here, a new shoot, there, a fallen seed pod producing a thick fur of green sprouts.
Perhaps, for those with eyes to see, there is even more to be found than that. All my life, I have searched the winter garden for signs of spring, seeking the promise of warmth and beauty to come. It is only now, in (late) middle age, that I begin to understand that winter is to be appreciated for itself. This is not an easy gratitude, yet it feels even deeper than the spontaneous sort that cascades from happy hearts.
The Nature of Winter
Winter is not simply a passage between autumn glory and spring bounty. It is not only fallow. Indeed, winter is not empty at all. As gardeners are fully aware, it is a time of rest and renewal, of slow and slumbering growth. It is a time for regrouping, consolidating, gathering strength.
Winter has another face, one we usually think of as less benevolent, if no less “natural”. Winter is a time for weeding out weak plants, or those not adapted to our climate. Where a hundred infant lilies passed peacefully into autumn sleep, maybe only thirty will awaken. Frost and root rots thin not only seedlings but mature plants that have passed their prime as well.
Winter Loss, Winter Gain
When a precious plant fails to reappear in spring, nature’s relentless purging feels sorrowful. Indeed, I have sometimes replanted a favorite five or six times, unwilling to accept that I can’t grow absolutely everything I want to. Unwilling, too, to find an acceptable substitute in some of the few thousand plants I can grow with relative ease.
When winter robs me of a beloved dream, I feel bitter against it, longing for warmer climes where summer never ends. However, winter is actually a time of enormous activity. If little is visible on the surface, a great deal is going on underground. Roots are lengthening. Pale shoots are inching upward through frozen soil, forcing their way up toward light and air. Embryo flowers are forming inside bulbs, their cramped folds tucked inside tightly compressed buds.
This implicit burgeoning has a powerful symbolic resonance because it echoes our own patterns of change. We, too, go through such periods. Life may seem drab and slack, empty and blank, yet under the skin, we may be full almost to bursting with hidden riches. That very fullness creates a pressure that can be experienced as pain. Indeed, in medical terms, pain IS pressure.
Emotional pressure can hurt as much as any physical sensation. The building urgency of impending change, as experience is slowly pushing wisdom toward birth, can cause acute discomfort. I have no idea how a plant perceives winter, but for people, there is comfort in recognizing these times of slow, sometimes painful growth for what they are.
Waiting Brings Fulfillment
Until that newborn wisdom breaks the surface of our awareness, like a stubborn daffodil puncturing pavement, it can feel as though nothing at all is happening. Because our culture prizes the obvious, we may experience our inner winter as empty waiting, frustrating and without fulfillment.
When only the pain is recognized, we struggle against the process. It helps to understand that hidden changes are occurring. When we can calm down and cooperate, breathing into the stillness, we can listen and learn a lot faster. Blooming spring can’t come until solemn winter has prepared the way.
The Wonder of Winter
These days, I am celebrating winter for itself. I am seeing the sleeping garden as half full and half empty. I remember that a daffodil forced to bloom indoors in January may never recover. One that spends the winter building roots and rises to bloom in March or April will divide itself in a few years, splitting into several young bulbs. I’m remembering the power of patience and how to value seasonal delights in their proper season. This burgeoning awareness feels like something genuinely worth celebrating.