I just returned from teaching a class on conifers (cone-bearing evergreens) to Clark's kindergarten class. I volunteer with an organization called Four Winds Nature Institute whose aim is to get more natural science into the community, and particularly the public school classroom. Teaching natural science to 6 year olds is a lesson in simplification. It isn't botanical names, cultivars, or specific epithets. Take that rewind it back! The takeaway is far more simple. Conifers are conifers because they produce their seeds in cones and they have evergreen (well, almost always you tricky tamarack) needles for leaves. Period.
I'm always so focused on identification or how I can cut it down and use that I forget it IS amazing that there are trees that can persevere through our winters... and hold on to their LEAVES. They aren't photosynthesizing during this period, yet they aren't shed like deciduous trees either. They just hang on and endure until the light returns, everything thaws out, and they begin to photosynthesize and grow again.
Far before the advent of Christianity, ancient civilizations across the world believed that evergreens had special powers to stay verdant through the winter, when all other deciduous and herbaceous plants seemed dead. Botanically speaking they do. Their magic comes in the form of a tough waxy coating that keeps the needles from drying out when the ground is too frozen to get water. But the ancients didn't know that!! And so they revered them. They hung them over their doors to ward off evil, disease and bad mojo in general.
There is something to be said for living with a little mystery... But I won't say it right now. There is also something to be said for starvation, suffering, and the ability to flip a switch of the thermostat and count on your loved ones making it through the winter.
Sun worshiping civilizations believed that the Sun God was growing sick and weak with the shortening days of winter. Watching the crops die in the cold air and plants going dormant made them scared that the earth was going to freeze. Evergreens were the only sign of life that promised spring would return again. And thank God for evergreens. Can you imagine living then without them? Watching everything around you "die" with no sign of enduring life anywhere? Sort of terrifying.
And let me just add that I am in Virginia editing this right now, and watching the blooming camellias and hellebores and GREEN grass and realizing that some readers may not truly grasp what I am saying right now... Y'all southerners just don't KNOW how desolate winter can be!! I sure as hell didn't 5 years ago. Trust me, those ancient peeps in colder climates were freakin' out, fo sho.
The Winter Solstice is actually a single instant in time when the rotating Earth's hemisphere that is facing away from the sun begins facing toward the sun again. With this shift ends the shortening of days and begins the lengthening of days. Without the right equipment it is impossible to know the exact moment so we celebrate the solstice on the shortest day and longest night of the year that falls on December 21st (in the northern hemisphere). Here at 44 degrees northern latitude in good ole Monkton, Vermont that day means only 8 1/2 hours of light and 15 1/2 hours of darkness.
Seasonally speaking it's a manic depressive type of climate. The weeks leading up to the winter solstice leave me feeling about as low as I can go. Wait 6 months with 15 1/2 hours of daylight and I'm an absolute maniac! I am learning to just try and keep steady on. Not easy. At all. Light therapy, salt baths, and a rigged up hot yoga studio in our guest room (propane heater on high, hot mist humidifier blasting) are getting me part of the way there. Next stop, SAUNA.... better be particularly nice to my man this winter.
In ancient times the winter solstice was of monumental importance. Archeological remains at Stonehenge suggest that structures were aligned on the sight-line of the winter solstice sunset. The traditional ritual of lighting fires at night for the solstice was to encourage the Sun God to gain strength again. To call the return of the light.
The history of wreath making dates back to about 800 years B.C. when wreaths of Laurel were made to crown the victors of Olympic games. It is likely that they were hung on the wall to signify victory and celebration. Christians then adopted the circular wreath as a symbol of eternity, as it has no beginning nor end. Wreaths of evergreen boughs for Christmas symbolized the strength of eternal life overcoming the forces of winter.
OH so THAT'S what I've been doing all these years!! I have made wreaths every December since my first nursery job in college, about 15 years now. In Vermont I have continued that tradition, building upon it by foraging and growing all of my materials. If anything, I've upped the ante. I'm not catering to anyone in particular and so can make them as wild and wooly as I want, thank you very much.
Foraging for natural materials makes me feel closer to those ancient sun worshiping people. Rooting around for whatever interests me in the winter landscape is grounding during a time that I often feel out of sync and floundering with the garden under snow and ice. I have our neighbors 20 acres out the back door, a field full of dried weeds, and garden material I cut and dry indoors to work with, along with pots of herbs I'm overwintering. I am entirely fulfilled making beautiful things out of whatever I can scrounge up.
Surprise, surprise! Being resourceful feels really good, and I must admit I did not grow up in that, errr, tradition. It has taken marrying an earnest Vermonter; one who when we met had a 5 year old homemade spoon (a small paddle really that he had carved from some driftwood on a river somewhere) still in primary use in his kitchen. That is NOT something I could even comprehend at that point...and I loved it. I was like, people think to DO things like that? Like, he needed a wooden spoon so he MADE ONE OUT OF DRIFTWOOD?! I need to marry this person!!
The heart wants what the heart wants.
Certainly doesn't hurt as a florist and grower to have such a resourceful man around. Listen up ladies, you can take all the carpentry lessons in the world or you can just find yourself a man willing to do it for you. How's THAT for modern feminism?! Greenhouse, coldframes, soil sifters, raised beds, trellises, gates, fences, seedling shelving, potting benches, compost bins, outdoor dining furniture, delivery shelving for the van, flower presses... THANK YOU ADAM!
I think I make up to you in the kitchen, but one of these days I will learn how to use a table saw and split firewood. Until then you will be summoned to do my bidding. You will almost always have a generous smile on your face. Oh yes, on occasion you will be called upon in the dark of night. You will be in our frigid garage until midnight, while I am sleeping soundly, making covers for the root cellar crates that GODFORSAKEN RAT has been getting into.
And then, early the next morning, before first light, and after tossing out pounds of potatoes and beets, you will be enraged enough to hunt the thing down INDOORS and you will shoot it with a pellet gun. Your second indoor rat kill of the season.
Did I mention you are an incredible shot?
And then you will build my "big ass fire" for the sun.
And the light will come back.