In the run up to Christmas many years ago I bought a couple of lengths of twisted willow that had been sprayed gold, brought them home and put them in a vase, weaving fairy lights through them. Within a week they’d sprouted leaves. Those sticks quickly grew into trees that require hard pruning every winter. Neighbours have taken cuttings – a too technical term for snipping off a slender tendril of this vigorous plant – which quickly grew into new trees. The willow is the last tree in my garden to lose its leaves and the first to show signs of life in late winter.
But not this year. Only now, in late April, has it shown any sign of life.
Spring has been incredibly late this year and even the hardiest plants have held off as the weather remains cold and dreary. Light has managed to force its way through almost continuous cloud cover as the planet tilts towards the sun, but it won’t have escaped your notice that austerity seems to have reached even into the natural world.
Today is Earth Day, the largest civic observance in the world, and whilst you may not feel up to writing letters to your MP about environmental issues you could do a lot worse than making a point of seeking out a place close to you where you can spend a little time immersed in nature, even if that means seeking out one of the many trees finally in blossom and just spending time gazing at it.
In Japan, Hanami is the centuries old custom of blossom viewing, a period after winter when people can leave their homes without being frozen or soaked, hanging lanterns in the trees, so that Flower Parties can continue into the night. For older or more serious minded people, simply watching the blossom reminds them that the beauty of life is fleeting and that they too are part of the cycle of growth, blossoming, fruiting, dying, and in death continuing to nurture new life.
Here in the UK, we are just a few days away from our own spring festival, Beltaine, a celebration of the smaller, less showy hawthorn flower and of life returning to the land. Too often, we forget that we too are part of the natural world, that we are as effected by sunlight and warmth, cold and dark and the rhythms of night and day as any plant.
Just as garden birds are having a hard time keeping their offspring warm and fed during this wet, cold spring, so every one of us, whether we can afford to have the heating on or not, is effected by the lack of natural warmth and having to spend months on end covered up and indoors. Not having sunlight on your skin results in vitamin D deficiency, which has an effect on mood as well as leading to weaker bones and muscles. And inactivity leads to depression. Commuting, though exhausting, does not count as activity.
Make a point today of going outdoors to do nothing, just for 10 minutes. Sit on a bench in the sun. Walk around looking for a cherry or plum tree – which you’ll recognize from the froth of flowers - and when you find one examine the structure of the tree, the colour of the blossom, whether the flowers are single or double, the glossy ruby red of cherry bark and so on. Frankly, no one will give a hoot about a person gazing at a tree in blossom, they won’t think you’re mad because, if they register you at all, there is an understanding that these trees are so beautiful that standing still and looking at them does not make a person bonkers. In fact – scientifically proven fact – it is likely to make you more sane than someone who doesn’t.
You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that the weather has an effect on mental health. Although it’s a good 4 weeks until the Spring Equinox the return of light is very obvious here in London: night falls around 5.30, dawn is around 6.30, the dawn chorus has begun, the green fuse has been lit and is slowly burning ready to explode in 4 weeks or so.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recognized ailment and I think more people experience it than the statistics suggest. Winter brings withdrawal from the world, difficulty getting up in the morning, putting on weight, craving fats and carbohydrates . . . that sounds like standard hibernation behaviour to me. Conversely, the return of light results in the behavioural and ecological changes we can already see and hear around us. We are mammals and, like every other living thing, plant or animal, we respond to and are part of our environment.
I keep banging on about the profound economic changes going on around us because whether or not we are directly effected by them we are all part of it. Those children who used to be in your child’s class who disappeared because of housing benefit changes, the increase in street homelessness and street mental illness, endless media stories about global disturbance and uncertainty are part of our collective awareness. Whilst we can all certainly do more in and for our own communities there also comes a point when we have to stop and take stock. Monday mornings might not be a bad time to do that.
Despite the cold Spring is here. If we make time to stand in the sun, to listen to the dawn chorus, to let our eyes wander over the earth where green shoots have been sprouting for 3 weeks or so and to search out snowdrops and hellebore flowering in city parks across the country, then the scientific evidence suggests we will feel consciously better as well as metabolically restarted.
You can find the science here
There will always be urgent tasks screaming for your attention. Even if the screaming task is a child, if you’re indoors stop and breathe deeply. Take your child, go outdoors and rejuvenate a little. It will reconnect you to your world, to the people around you and to yourself.
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