Spring Or Snow?
This coming Wednesday, February 4, is Groundhog Day, when supposedly a shadow can predict whether we’ll experience six more weeks of winter or enjoy an early spring. For all of us who are eager to get back into the garden, a groundhog in New England is unlikely to provide useful information, but between NOAA and the Washington State Climatologist, it sounds like the Pacific Northwest is in for more cold and a lot more wet weather. Western Oregon is likely to have a similarly wet and cool few months, and Californians may also get some drought relief, definitely good news. Rain is certainly welcome to our native plants, which have been stressed badly by recent extreme weather events. It’s also welcome in our gardens, especially if temperatures drop, as plants can handle far more cold without as much damage if their soil and root zones are moist. It still sounds a bit ridiculous to suggest that gardens might need watering in winter, yet I’ve come to realize that dealing with facts is more effective than remaining a creature of habit.
Like so many Christian Era holidays, Groundhog day coincides with an ancient pagan festival, Imbolc. Traditionally, Imbolc is observed on February 1 and marks (more or less) the halfway point between The Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. To smooth the transition between old and new, the beloved ancient Celtic goddess Brighid took on the identity of Saint Brigid, enabling people to continue to find comfort in her care for people and animals. Whatever the weather, Imbolc marked the start of the lambing season, often a time of fierce weather, and shepherds needed (and still need) all the help they could get to bring weaker lambs to safety. Instead of Groundhog Day, many countries observe Candlemas, and ceremonial candle lighting has been woven into traditional Celtic practices as a sign of hope in dim dark days. The flicker of flame is always fascinating the the human eye and in tiny houses like ours, where there’s no room for a fireplace, a candle serves as a reminder of warmth and light and the coming of spring.
Spring On The Wing
The traditional festival of Brighid celebrated the ‘quickening of the year’, and the promise of new life on the way. Despite snow and sleet and wild winds, underground, life is stirring and roots are waking up. As I slowly tidy up the garden, carefully checking for egg cases and chrysalises, I find fat shoots poking up. When I do, I don’t remove all the dead top growth but leave enough to provide a few degrees of frost protection on sub-freezing nights. Some plants look truly dead and prove their passing by pulling up easily, roots and all, with barely a tug. Others aren’t so obvious and since there’s no hurry to clear them away before the arrival of warmer days wakes them up (or not), I leave them in place to recover or pass on. It’s too cold to stay in the garden long, but when there’s a sun break, I dash out and putter until the clouds return or the sun slips behind the trees. Even at midday, the sun is so low in the sky that my little yard only gets a few hours of direct winter sunlight at best, so every minute I can spend in the garden now is precious and healing.
As I work, I hear the sweetest bird chatter all around me, a sound shut off by the closed windows of winter. It reminds me of how cut off from nature we can get when we isolate indoors, insulated from natural light and natural sounds as well as cold and damp. I look forward eagerly to being able to leave windows open again, hearing the sleepy bird chorus at sunset and the joyful bird song at daybreak. My cat has better hearing than I do anymore and she lets me know when the birds wake up, usually by jumping on my head if I’m slow to rouse. Though annoying, I’m actually glad to wake up with the sun most of the time, as it feels like another natural rhythm, right alongside the swinging seasons of the year.
Covid & Wholesome Snacks
One silver lining of our recent covid experience is that somehow it removed all desire for sweets. Actually, the shift might predate that and have more to do with the anxiety attacks that landed me in the ER before Christmas. It’s a novel experience to find myself actually acting consistently in my own best interests, something I haven’t been managing very well over the past few years. This unexpected benefit also includes a renewed desire to get outside and walk, another lifelong habit lost to pandemic scares. I wish I could claim that the wholesome changes I’m experiencing are the result of will power but truthfully, they aren’t, unless they’re an expression of a deeper will than my conscious one. Perhaps the human will to live is waking me up to better behavior; if so, it’s very welcome!
One result of this behavioral shift (long may it last!) is finding only healthy meals and healthy snacks appealing. Several recent studies suggest that eating an ounce or two of daily walnuts is especially beneficial for older brains, helping to fend off cognitive decline. Now that’s something I’m strongly in favor of (!!), so I’ve been experimenting with nutty snack recipes. Almonds are also good, but my aging teeth aren’t up to the crunch challenge anymore so softer walnuts, pecans and peanuts (both also loaded with brain-pleasing phytonutrients) are in for the win. Turns out that an ounce of walnuts is about 1/4 cup, a perfect snack serving. A lot of snacky recipes are sweet or complicated to make or involve unhealthy ingredients. So far, the family favorite is a mix of lightly toasted nuts tossed with a spice blend that can be changed to please your palate. See what you think!
Savory Spiced Nuts
2 teaspoons avocado or olive or favorite oil
4 cups nuts (I use walnuts, pecans and peanuts)
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp granulated garlic (or garlic powder)
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper or smoked paprika
1/4 tsp sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine oil and nuts in a large bowl and toss to coat. In another bowl, combine spices, stir well and pour over nuts, tossing to coat evenly. Spread nuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 6-8 minutes. Stir nuts and return to oven for an additional 6-8 minutes. Longer baking makes for crunchier nuts, so experiment with timing to find the way you like them best. Cool and store in a tightly covered jar. Serving size 1/4-1/2 cup per day.
If you want a sweeter treat, try this mixture or adapt it to your taste:
Sweet Spiced Nuts
Follow the recipe above, substituting this mixture or a similar blend of spices.
Sweet Spice Blend
2-3 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp nutmeg or cardamom
pinch of sea salt