The shift from autumn to winter is sometimes imperceptible. I will suddenly notice that all the trees are bare. The ground will become muddy with rotting leaves and the cold will creep up on me. There is no consensus about when winter begins. Meteorologists package the year up into neat quarters, with 1st December designated as the first day of winter. For astronomers, it is the winter solstice. But for me, this year, winter begins on the last Saturday in November in Manchester. It is the day after my father-in-law’s funeral and I wake early to an unearthly landscape of white mist. There is a surreal hush. Trees are no more than shadows in the fog and ice crisps the foliage.
There is a path on the edge of the Manchester ship canal that is a tiny oasis among housing estates. Only a day before, the blazing sunset lit up the last golden leaves and I watched three ring-necked parakeets flutter across the canal, the first I have ever seen in the wild. But this morning, winter has the canal in its grip. Scores of Canada Geese huddle silently on the bank. Mist moves in lazy coils along the water. A flock of black headed gulls cavorts in a garland of steam. Ice and sun have melted the landscape into vapour and echoes.
As we drive back north, fog shrouds the motorway. The sun has gone out, casting the world in grey shadow. The road is lined by the rise of moors and the dip of valleys. I know that there are towns and buildings in these valleys, but today there is no evidence of that. They are nothing more than bowls of dense white mist, like eerie seascapes. But we emerge from the mist to the afternoon sun, which kindles the remnants of autumn. Beeches shimmer with copper leaves. Apple trees droop with red and yellow fruit.
Back home, most of the trees are bare. The leafscape has turned from gold to burnt orange and umber. Leaves now squelch rather than crackle beneath my feet. But just as the autumn show is almost over, the last wild cherry blazes. It has been slow to give up its gifts. Usually I can pluck sweet cherries from its branches in summer, but this year they were sour, left to rot on the tree even by the birds. Now it is a beacon among the skeletons. The halo of fallen leaves around its base glows against the frosted grass.
Today is National Tree Dressing day, an annual celebration of the importance of trees in our lives. Communities are encouraged to tie ‘leaves’ with messages of thanks to a tree. As the trees undress, we re-dress them. The celebration draws on old traditions of adorning trees. In my post The Shoe Tree I wrote about the ways we dress trees and down by the canal path last week, I discovered another: a memorial tree, dressed to commemorate the life of a man who had died there.
But today I will leave the trees to their nakedness. I’m dressing a different kind of tree, though it’s all part of the same tradition. My Christmas tree is a symbol of life in the death of winter. It is a reminder that when the earth seems to be little more than bones, life still stirs, waiting to be re-born. Trees reflect the transience of life in their seasonal changes: the brief joy of spring blossoms, the plenty of summer fruits and the excitement of autumn finery. Then they show us death, with their winter skeletons. As I dress the tree, I recall the many times I have done this before. I think of all the other people doing what I am doing now. And I think of those communities re-dressing the trees that are important to them. Winter has begun, but each tree is a flicker in the darkness, lacing the earth with threads of light.