Winter's Illusion / by Jessica Hunter

We say that the earth sleeps in winter, nestled away under a white duvet of snow. All is still, serene, with a simple monochromatic palette. Evergreens peak out behind their sugary dusted appearance and bare branches appear almost lifeless among the living.


Our backyard is a carpet of chalky white, the spirea is blackened with what appears as decay, the hydrangea bush frozen and dried out, the lilac and magnolia just empty twigs poking out of the ground, the lavender completely buried, and the climbing roses sticks with thorns along the fence.

When I look out over the garden I feel as though all is asleep and yet this is nature’s greatest deception, the earth may be hiding but it is not dead, nor does it sleep. The life is just unseen, below the surface. It’s the underground movement. If we turned the earth over, its wild upside down kingdom would no longer be a secret. It is untamed, groaning, moving, active, and uncultivated by a gardener’s hand. Its roots pressing down deep into the dirt and bulbs bursting forth with shoots of green waiting for its grand gesture of spring for the naked eye to see.

“here underground the great programme of Spring is laid down…let spring build green vaults over the pioneer work of the autumn.”

NO, nature is not sleeping; its vegetation has just ceased to grow upwards, instead it grows down.  Bulbs swell and the heels of dried foliage outgrow their shoes. We have not looked closely enough, as we cannot see it from below, but we can imagine. Just as we turn inwards in these cooler months, we do not sleep. In fact we have more time to ponder our lives in the still of winter, we don’t busy ourselves as much. We are forced to reflect on our inner world, experiencing emotions that tend to be dormant the rest of the year but stir in these more monotonous winter days.

It’s easy to feel dead and withering in the winter, yet we are given this time to push through and grow, not by moving but by being still. Our futures are forming and we are beckoned to listen for the possibilities within.

The landscape appears the same, unaltered, unwavering in appearance, like the Chanel of the seasons, predictable and elegant, but so much more is underneath the seams.

Confidence is found in this time of nakedness. As their faded perennial bodies lay bare for all to see, their foundations are forming, forging deeper into the soil, fighting for assurance, for their life. It’s in this place of humility and self-acceptance that they overflow with vitality.

But, we know this pale thing is very much in motion. Can’t you hear the cracking of the earth, seething beneath your feet as you walk? The roots of the Japanese anemones have crossed paths with the foxgloves and astrantia, the quince is pushing on beyond the stone hedges up top and into the section of cosmos. Uncontrolled. I can’t keep them out of each other’s way, they are learning to live together, communing in the mud.

Sometimes I wish there was the equivalent to snorkelling in the sea for the garden, so I could burrow below and see all that’s happening during these so called hibernating months. As much as I’d like to know, I also enjoy the mystery of the garden, there’s a romance about it that draws me back, season after season. Regardless of its tiresome months of labour cleaning it up, harvesting, weeding, composting, turning over the soil, mulching, pruning, cleaning it up some more, seeding, fertilizing, diggings, planting, bringing in bulbs, and on and on it goes. The time we spend apart in the winter months beckons me back and I will find myself there again come Spring.

My mother bought me a nature library by reader’s digest when I was three years old. When I went to visit her this past weekend she returned it to me. My favourite story was “A Feast of Flowers” proven by my scribbles in the margins. It appears the only one I wrote in. Who knows what I was trying to say, all I know is I understand it as the start of a love story with flowers. I read this same story to my nephew last night. He propped himself up on my lap and was equally as enthusiastic towards all the creatures of the fields and meadows.

It’s a beautiful thing when you can pass on something of old to a person you love, making it new.

I’m reading many books at the moment but one that I enjoy picking up is, “A Literary Companion to Gardens” edited by Merilyn Simonds because it’s a collection of essays. It’s short enough to start my morning off with a story and feel as though my reading’s been productive. A gorgeous read this week which brought me to tears with its ending was “Preparations” by Karel Capek. I practically underlined the entire essay and the margins entirely marked with pencil notes. 

To close, I was going to try to put into my own words what Capek convey’s through his piece but he is so eloquent and I think I would just botch it with my semantics. This is for all of you who love words as much as me and seek meaning in all they read:

“It is an optical illusion that trees and bushes are naked…they are, in fact, sprinkled over with everything that will unpack and unroll in spring. It is only an optical illusion that my flowers die in autumn; for in reality they are born. We say that Nature rests, yet she is working like mad. She has only shut up shop and pulled the shutters down; but behind them she is unpacking new goods, and the shelves are becoming so full that they bend under the load. This is the real spring; what is not done now will be done in April. The future is not in front of us, for it is here already in the shape of a germ; already it is with us; and what is not with us will not be even in the future. We don’t see germs because they are underneath the earth; we don’t know the future because it is within us. Sometimes we seem to smell of decay, encumbered by the faded remains of the past; but if only we could see how many fat and white shoots are pushing forward in the old tilled soil, which is called the present day; how many seeds germinate in secret; how many old plants draw themselves together and concentrate into a living bud, which one day will burst into flowering life – if we could only see that secret swarming of the future within us, we should say that our melancholy and distrust is silly and absurd, and that the best thing of all is to be a living man – that is a man who grows.”