Cautious optimism during this wacky winter

“As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.” The old saying seems counterintuitive. Since the long night of Winter Solstice, Dec. 21, there is a bit more sunlight each day, and each day it sails higher in the sky, clear and bright, instead of hugging the horizon, filtered through the murk of the Earth’s atmosphere. It should warm us but, paradoxically, it does not.

A logician would call this a veridical paradox, an apparent contradiction that is resolved, once an explanation has been found — in this case, the fact that Earth holds onto the warmth of summer well into winter, then takes a long time to absorb it again. Easy to say. Emotionally, we are stuck in a paradox living and true, because the more light there is, the more all of us — animal, human or plant — itch to take part in the rebirth of the growing year, as opposed to shoveling snow. This year, of course, with an oddly warm winter in Maine, it has often felt as if spring were imminent. But as Mainers we know better. At any time we could be plunged back into the deep freeze.

Agrarian societies in the temperate zone all have festivals linked to the yearly cycle of light and dark, warmth and cold. In the Celtic tradition there are eight: the opposing pair of summer and winter solstices, when the longest and shortest days are noted; the spring and winter equinoxes when night and day are equally long; and precisely in between these, the four fire festivals that celebrate the quarter holidays: Imbolc on Feb. 1-2, Beltain on April 30-May 1 (May Day), Lughnasa on Aug. 1-2 (a harvest rite) and Samhain on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, which we still celebrate as Halloween with lighted pumpkins. Imbolc (possibly derived from ewes’ milk) celebrates the birth of farm animals and the emergence of wild ones from the forest, as in its successor, Groundhog Day. And it is the time when the 10-hour day initiates growth in plants — a trigger at least as important as warm weather.

About that time this year I watch and wait for witch hazel buds to open and there they are! The occasional deer, emboldened by hunger, noses about in search of expensive, nursery-grown fruit tree browse. I turn my attention to the plants near our south windows, and the potted citrus plants are hard to ignore, the wood-heated air of the room igniting the scent of just-opened blooms. The sage, its foliage newly lush, is tipped with tiny, round buds, opening purple. The rosemary has soft new sprigs on top. A passion fruit vine has scaled the Venetian blinds. The magical 10-hour day has returned, and the plants know it. The cluster flies know it, buzzing between the ice-cold windows and the screens left in place after summer. And we know it.

This sunny but frigid time can trigger mad acts in humans, such as starting tomato plants too soon or applying a spade to wet clods of soil. But if it gets us outdoors, that’s fine, as long as we have mufflers at the ready, since we are not quite out of the woods yet.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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