Depending on whether you believe the seasons change by the calendar or the solstice, we are either in the last dog days of autumn, or are about to enter the final three-week run down to the shortest day and the ‘official’ start of the ‘miserable season’.
Me? I tend to compartmentalise the seasons in monthly quarters, so irrespective of the weather, autumn will end on November 30th and winter will begin, lasting until we emerge, blinking, into a bright, clear spring on March 1st.
Trying to work out why is not so simple. I’m not sure I’ve actually thought about why before; perhaps, growing up in Scotland it may have been easier to differentiate between each season, although they all seemed to be mostly composed of rain, whatever the time of year. I suspect it was much more to do with the amount of daylight, so that the beginning of December, for example, when it’s dark by the middle of the afternoon, is classic winter, whereas the beginning of March, when we are approaching equal amounts of light and dark, should be regarded as spring.
However, it’s only fair to admit that, not only have I always consciously divided the year into seasons, I have also divided those quarters into sub-sections: for example, December 1st to 21st is early winter; December 22nd to January 12th deep winter; the next three weeks is middle winter and, finally, February is late winter.
Weird? yes. Anal? most probably. So, why? Oddly, this is not something I devised in childhood, but thought up during the interminable years when the need to earn a crust forced me into a Monday to Friday, nine to five regime: the work pattern that shuts out daylight for the best part of three months.
For me, it was probably a tactic to combat depression, the black dog that, each year, began to hover around Hallowe’en and only started to ease by the half term holiday in February. But it wasn’t winter that I dreaded: far from it, I’ve always loved snow, the still beauty of cold midwinter afternoons, the early, fiery sunsets and the resilience of nature through the cruellest part of the year.
What I couldn’t deal with was the lack of any opportunity to see daylight for most of the week. As such, sub-dividing the season was an attempt to make the three winter months more bearable; a way to get through, particularly as at the end of each section I religiously logged the time of sunset, so I would have some concrete evidence of the slowly lengthening days after the winter solstice. Indeed, although not enough of an anorak to learn how to to apply the principles of the analemma, I did become sufficiently obsessed with sunset times to learn that they actually reach their earliest around 10 days before the solstice, remaining constant until December 21st/22nd!
Rather sad, I admit but, as they say, whatever gets you through the day, or in my case, the darkness. And knowing that even by January 1st sunset is around 15 minutes later than at the solstice is a small comfort during the bleak, empty days of early January.
But, returning to my opening point, whether we consider winter starts on Monday, or three weeks later, we are now in the darkest part of the year with millions condemned to little or no daylight for the next 12 weeks. I now consider myself hugely fortunate, having given up the day job three years ago so now, however wet and dismal, I can enjoy some daylight and fresh air in the middle of the day.
When anyone asks me what is the best feature of working from home my answer is automatic: being able to savour a winter’s day. And, if I was world king for the day, I’d make it compulsory for all nine-to-five slaves to have a week’s extra paid holiday in the middle of winter and insist they spent at least part of the day outside during daylight.
Back in the real world, even little things can make a difference: a few minutes to enjoy a sunrise or sunset, getting outside at lunchtime if you can, spending time feeding the birds and spotting wildlife (often easier in the winter) and if you’re feeling negative, thinking about their struggle to survive.
Just find something, however small, however fleeting, to enjoy. Winter takes up 25 per cent of the year and it does provide some of its most memorable moments. Don’t wish it away.
Postscript: the mountain hare, an iconic, indigenous animal of these islands, is now becoming increasingly rare. Appallingly, many are being slaughtered by the shooting fraternity who erroneously claim hares threaten the grouse they rear (reared, of course, to be blasted out of the sky in the name of ‘sport’).
Intensive management of upland areas for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting has led to the near-extinction of the protected hen harrier in England, and has other negative environmental effects.
Please sign Dr Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting before we lose any more of our priceless, indigenous wildlife.