Winter always catches me by surprise. One moment I am riding high on the warmth of long summer evenings, vaguely aware that the leaves have started to change colour, and the next thing I know, I am coming to, completely lost in an all-engulfing greyness. It is not the shortening days or the drop in temperature that rips the rug from under my feet, it is something almost palpable in the air that November ushers in. As the trees lose the last of their leaves and even the late-flowering plants droop and fade, something similar happens to me: I am no longer myself, no longer all there. Something darker creeps in. A shadow finds a way under my skin and takes over so that even if I look like I am there and functioning as usual, I am not the one pulling the strings anymore.

There are ways of clawing back control, of getting back into my body, of steering a course through the world. If I do these things often enough, I start to feel a part of it again. I didn’t realise the things I was doing were rituals at first. They were just ordinary actions that I did to fill the long hours in the darkest quarter of the year. Over time I started to notice their worth and do them more intentionally, to fight the growing sense of despair that surges up in winter. Often they seem futile but I do them anyway, recognizing them at last for what they really are: little lessons in survival.

The first step in each ritual involves going outside. This goes counter to popular advice: many people will tell you that winter is the time to hunker down. To stay indoors and get cosy under a pile of blankets. To embrace the darkness and rest. This may well work for them but it has never much helped me. I prefer to trust in the words of the fourteenth-century poet Hafiz: “Stay close to whatever it is that makes you feel alive.” And so I turn to nature. There is much to be learned from the garden and other green spaces even when the world is pared down, sparse, and still—and more brown than green. Not all plants die back, of course, even if they are supposed to. Some can be surprisingly resilient. One winter solstice a few years ago I stepped out of my back door and was greeted by an astonishing burst of vivid pink. A pelargonium that I had abandoned to the elements at the end of summer had chosen the shortest day of the year to bloom. The flowers jolted me awake from the strange blank state I had slipped into weeks before. I knew then that I had to preserve the plant at all costs and so I snipped off a few cuttings, inhaling the fresh scent of the cool green stems as I carefully placed them in a jar of water on the windowsill inside. Every year since, I have repeated the ritual, taking cuttings from subsequent generations of that first vibrant plant. They don’t all spontaneously send out roots, but enough of them do to ensure that there will be flowers from one year to the next. By now I have realised that this ritual is about more than just the hope of having flowers next year: cutting the stems, I remember that sometimes there has to be an act of severance before new life can sprout. Even though I feel completely cut off from my summer self, I tell myself it might be possible to start afresh. As with the plants, I know there are no guarantees.

Two or three times a week I venture further to visit the compost bin at the end of the garden, prising its plastic green lid off and peering inside to see what has changed since my last visit. Garden cuttings mingle with coffee grounds and crushed-up bits of eggshell—the various strata telling a tale of what we eat from week to week as the seasons shift: the tops and tails of courgettes give way to pumpkin peelings and lawn clippings are replaced by layers of fallen leaves. I add more elements, using a garden fork to turn the layers and a long metal pole to stir the mixture like a witch at her cauldron brewing up potions and enchantments. Despite my investment in this ritual, I know it is not me who is working any kind of magic here. That happens deeper down in the dark where the worms tunnel their way up through the open base and feast on the edible scraps of plant matter, transforming them into soft dark leavings. Meanwhile, in the relative warmth of the bin, other chemical process of rot and decay will break down the cells of the inedible materials—twigs, branches, cardboard.

I tend the compost bin like a creature that I love, like any other growing thing in the garden because as far as I can tell, it is a living, breathing thing. On cold days steam rises out of it like breath. What awaits me when I peer inside is not as beautiful as the pelargonium flowers but it is a sight to behold, always shifting and changing. In the compost bin there is no such thing as waste: everything breaks down and becomes a part of something else that is greater than the sum of its parts. By the time the scraps I feed it reach the base of the bin, the process of transformation will be complete and the disparate elements that make it up will no longer be identifiable in the handfuls of moist, dark compost that I will scoop out. The ritual of stirring it reminds me of this process, reminds me of the alchemy that is all around in nature, happening on a microscopic level. I can almost feel it working its magic on me, as my arms warm up from the effort of stirring. There will be more magic when the finished product nourishes the seeds and cuttings that I will plant in it in months to come. But first, I have to wait. First, I must trust in the slow, unseen processes of decay, even as they seem to threaten my resolve. I must trust that I, too, will come out of this season transformed.

I take my despair further afield, walking it around my neighbourhood. I often find myself drawn to a local cemetery, a green space where nature thrives and life is evident amongst the toppling gravestones. It can feel like a very grey place in winter, especially when the clouds sit heavy overhead like a lid on the day that is firmly shut on any thoughts of brightness. Some days the sky is so muted when I look up that the whole world feels like a black and white photograph. I cannot even make out the birds in the branches, though the goldfinches in the treetops chirr and whistle on and on and robins land at eye level to sing bursts of something more tuneful, as if they know something I don’t, as if they are trying to colour in the afternoon with their song. With regular visits I notice that even the grey is more complex than it seems at first sight: it is not a fixed thing or an all-encompassing presence. It has many different textures and shades, from the greenish frills of a lichen-dappled gravestone to the purplish tinge of a pigeon’s wing flapping in a furious panic as it struggles to steady itself on an unstable branch. My despair is more complex than it seems too and the ritual of walking in this space allows different shades of light and colour to permeate it as the afternoon fades.

My favourite tree in the cemetery is a big old beech and no visit is complete without a moment or two beneath its boughs. In summer its canopy is so vast that to stand underneath it is like being inside a huge building with a ceiling of golden-green stained glass. In winter, when the branches are exposed and the sun is setting, the light sometimes hits the rough surface of the bark at such an angle that, for a few moments, it seems that the whole structure is flecked with gold. I stand underneath the tree, leaning against the heft of its thick trunk, finding solace in the constancy of the tree’s wooden skeleton that reaches high into the sky, a mirror of the hidden roots that hold fast underground, anchoring the tree in place no matter how many storms batter its branches each winter. I recall my pelargonium plants and their tentative roots and wonder if I have started to sprout any yet. What hidden parts do I have that do the important work of holding me upright even as life seems to have drained out of me? What storms am I capable of weathering, even in the cold?

As the winter idles on and the wheel of one year turns and tips into another, crocuses start to poke pale, silvery stems up through the carpet of last year’s leaves, so pale that they are almost colourless at first. Once I notice them emerging I visit them every day, following the same set route to check on their progress. It is only with time that they will swell and open to reveal a sea of lilac within, intensifying and diversifying into all shades of purple from early-February onwards. Although I resent the cold air on my face, I know that it is a necessary factor in the cycles that I am observing. These flowers—and other bulb-forming species—require a period of freezing temperatures to trigger the new growth that emerges underground every year. Without the cold, what happens next simply wouldn’t occur. And what happens next is extraordinary. Out of the rubble, out of the flimsy grey sepals that keep the crocus blooms protected as they emerge, the rapture begins. Once open, the flowers seem to catch the sun and magnify it, as though the gold stamens dusted in pollen within the petals conduct the light. If I crouch down amongst them their reach is as vast a wildflower meadow in summer, but right here, right now—no need to wait for warmer days. I bend down to focus all my attention on them, photographing this miracle in miniature, taking my time to frame the flowers just right, to get the tiny petals properly in focus. I can forget my despair almost entirely for all the few minutes that this ritual takes. So I take my time, filling my phone with shades of purple and hope. I post them online or send them to friends, wanting to share the joy they bring me. I don’t mention the bad feelings that have been building for months, disguising myself instead in their colourful cloak of joy that keeps me safe from being seen. And yet the crocuses represent both my delight and my despair and the way that one is contained within the other in endless layers.

On the first warm days in Spring I sometimes believe that I am photosynthesizing, so energizing is the feeling of sunlight upon my face. But it is only ever freckles that appear in patches on my nose; I’ve not yet managed to sprout any leaves. Perhaps these pages will do instead—they serve a similar purpose. Indeed, none of my rituals are quite complete until this moment when I sit here and write about them. This is part of the alchemy too and something I do with regularity and intention, usually first thing in the morning, outside if possible, bundled up in blankets with nothing but a steaming cup of coffee and the garden birds to keep me company. Writing is perhaps the most important part of all of these rituals because it is where I am able to draw out the meaning of the small acts of observation and tending that I do, mining my own grey areas for signs of life, renewal and steadfastness, noticing the way that I am tended in turn by the plants and plant matter that I keep watch over. Writing lets me record the minute shifts in perspective that happen in the dark months, in the ebb and flow of my moods. Even with all these strategies to keep it at bay, my despair always rises up again, as determined as the crocus shoots are to reveal itself. I wonder if I’ll always be like this, always a little bit lost, always struggling with myself in the winter months. Always wishing I was doing just a little bit better at life but still fairly clueless as to how I might change things. Always panicking at the very thought of change even as I crave it, even as I enact it with my daily walks and rituals. Unless I write about it, I risk forgetting the little insights that this cold, gloomy period has brought me and I will have to face next year’s winter as untethered as ever. In all the abundance of new spring life I will forget the importance of letting go of what was and honouring the processes of decay. So I record them here as faithfully as I can in black and white, hoping that a few subtler shades of grey can find a way to show their own delicate beauty somewhere in between the lines.

There is another reason that the ritual ends with words on the page: only by writing can I extend the ritual outwards and invite others in. All the things I do to get me through the winter I do alone, or rather without any human company—just that of the plants and the birds—and I know deep down that solitude won’t save me. It’s no good only to show people the more colourful sides of myself, concealing the murkier layers that lurk below that haven’t been transformed yet. I know that in order for the magic truly to work, I must share the whole messy process, worms and all. Only then does it become real. Once I invite other people to bear witness to what will always be a work-in-progress, the possibility of something shifting starts to multiply exponentially. Perhaps you will feel inspired to take cuttings too, or start a compost bin, or plant bulbs or find the shoots of those that others have planted before you and watch them grow. Perhaps you will find rituals of your own in the grey murkiness of winter, lessons in survival that add up to your own step-by step guide of how to thrive in adverse conditions. Perhaps not. Maybe it is enough that there is someone out here who knows what it feels like when there seems to be no end in sight to the particular heaviness that characterizes winter, or what it means to catch just a tiny flicker of light or colour out of the corner of your eye and for one fleeting moment to feel something that isn’t quite hope—not yet—but the suggestion that it might show up again one day. I write to remind myself as much as anyone. It is so easy to forget when things feel so futile.

Either way, the rituals help ease my burden, providing the illusion of rootedness here on the page and giving me the means to send out these tentative shoots from the murkiness that is me. The resulting shifts are fleeting and easy to miss but, for however long they last, I can make peace with the strange force that pulls my strings each winter. If nothing else, it is a reminder that, even in the shadowy spaces, I am entwined and connected to something greater than myself.

And with that, the rituals are complete.

 

 

Sara Collie is a writer, language tutor and wandering soul living in Cambridge, England. She has a PhD in Contemporary French Literature and loves playing with words, gardening, wild swimming and walking in the mountains. Her writing explores the wild, uncertain spaces of nature, the ups and downs of mental health, and the mysteries of the creative process. Her poetry and prose have appeared in various online and print anthologies. She is currently writing a memoir about her experiences hiking across the Pyrenees. You can find links to her writing at http://www.saracollie.wordpress.com.