I’m not good with winter: I become cranky (crankier) and I crave hibernation, I hate the short, grey nature of the days. We have passed the very shortest day, thank goodness, but spring can’t come fast enough for me. It’s true that what little natural light there is in winter can be astoundingly beautiful, sneaking up on ordinary scenes and transforming them briefly with its slanting magic. But I want more.
I enjoy the tacky fairy lights of Christmas and am grateful to the people who festoon their houses madly with glowing santas and skeins of retina-etching LEDs. In grey winter garden centres I can see why people spend their hard-earned on amusingly shaped solar garden lights. We’re all trying to fend off the darkness and it makes perfect sense for people of the Northern hemisphere to have festivals of light at this time of year.
Quite a few gardens open to the public light themselves up in the depths of winter nowadays, usually in a slightly more tasteful way than the flashy grottoes of commercial Christmas. I suppose it brings the punters in during the slow season, but I’ve never been very keen on lights in gardens, it seems wasteful, and invasive to neighbours and wildlife. I like to see a glow from uncurtained windows (it always makes me think of advent calendars) but I don’t like the fad for aiming spotlights at mediocre garden features which was ignited by garden makeover programmes of the 1990s.
Despite my misgivings about light pollution, the lights at Hidcote Manor a couple of years ago did give a small dose of twinkly feelgood to my winter. The features of this garden are familiar to me – I live only 20 minutes away and was a volunteer there for a couple of years while I studied horticulture – and it was fun to see them given new colours and warmth, but at no point did I lose sight of where I was and what time of year it was.
This year we went to see the Bruce Munro light installations at Waddesdon and for some reason, even though I was wrapped against the cold almost as thoroughly as the statues which inhabit the grounds, and even though there were Christmas trees and a gaggle of little festive sheds selling baubles and mulled cider, I found myself thinking about summer.
One installation resembled a clutch of moons – but on the night we went the full moon was doing a pretty good job of upstaging those. Another installation, fluorescent pegs on washing lines accompanied by recordings of chattering birds, made me chuckle and think back to my trip to New Zealand last February, where I saw a washing line in Whakatane pegged by young swallows.
The things I liked best, however, were the lights which reminded me of summer plants. Globes, domes, glowing colonies of fruiting bodies, all linked by electric cable hyphae, filamentous roots… they all sent me time travelling forward into the days of glowing flowerheads.
As we drove home I thought about lanterns and lamps, how their forms are so similar to the forms of flowering plants. I suppose it’s no coincidence. Flowers are built to reflect certain wavelengths of light, to be incandescent with scent, to spread the message to pollinators. Therefore they must stand up and radiate.
And so as I sit in my study with my SAD lamp blazing I thank my lucky stars for the ability to imagine future sunshine, and for the knowledge that the days are lengthening despite today’s grey drizzle and we’ll soon be basking among flowers again.