The winter has turned the corner— truly — our days are lengthening.
The beginning of winter’s end is fast upon us — but don’t be too enthusiastic: the winter is, itself, a garden. You just don’t see it that way.
Winter is not the cruelest season. It is the mother of the garden’s invention.
The winter garden is all around us: lights of all types — indoors and out — replace the sun. Bright hues recall the colors of summer, clothing us and spread about our immediate surroundings. Potted flowering plants, cut flowers — the entire glasshouse industry — orients us back toward the late spring, summer and early fall months. Table décor such as glass and crystal reflect and augment the brilliance that surrounded us in summer. Sweet foods and candies emulate the “fresh” tastes of the warm months.
Indeed, our ancestors believed the corn — or grain — spirit dwelt amongst the summer crops. During the growing season, the fertilizing agricultural spirit’s movements could be detected in waving stands of wheat. Once the harvest had been reaped and threshed, the now dormant corn god — or corn mother, or corn maiden, or old man or old woman: a matter of regional preference—was essentially homeless.
A widespread custom was to fashion a corn spirit figurine from cornstalks—incorporating the plant’s most fertile features—of the last crop harvested.
The corn spirit would bunker down in a selected home for the winter until dispersed into spring’s newly-turned earth. Yes, the corn doll is the ancestor of Barbie, a modern-day agricultural and fertility goddess whose effigy, carefully nurtured and groomed, is resident in many homes on a year-round basis.
Winter brings us all back home — but to the garden within. We close the door quickly and firmly, lest our garden be overtaken by rampaging wind and cold. The shut door closes both ways: confining winter’s wet, cold and wind to their outdoor chamber, and securing we mortals indoors. Inside becomes garden.
Winter epitomizes the sweet uses of adversity. The garden—and gardeners—come in from the cold. The place of genesis, fertility, growth, and activity moves indoors, corn-doll fashion. And the very seeds that will plant the crops of the following season sleep with us, in their dormancy, as we keep them — even mother them — in dry and uniform conditions. These are the garden beds of winter.
At home we cultivate not crops, but our hopeful selves. Agriculture’s skill set—planning, preparation, attunement, and the ability to cope with uncertainty—are put to frequent use.
Cool, cruel winter fertilizes the very human creations that keep us warm: home, culture, cooperation, tradition, song, legend, music, art, etiquette, festivity, comfort and joy.
The mid-winter season rejoins us to our ingenious, tenacious peasant forebears—who, at a minimum, were able to survive enough winters to produce offspring and a line of descent that leads to us. Their ancient folkways, born anew each winter, harmonize with our relatively modern established religions.
Virtually all creation myths begin in a vision of paradise that is, invariably, a garden. This must be a creation of the winter months, during which we imagined the vibrancy and beauty of creation as being that condition that would return to us in time. The corn goddess lives both through us as well as for us.
Speaking of time, our ancestors had to invent rituals to keep them awake in the shortened days. Both the rites and contemplation thereof, expanded the sense of time. Also, the practice of sharing — and the holidays just passed were the kick off for months of gift giving — might be the first foreshadowing of the recognition of brotherhood. Could it be that long sheltered winter groups became tribes? Making sure everyone has something, as in the survival of winter famine, and residually expressed in gift giving, reflects the invention of human survival.
As dormant seeds finally come to life again so shall we be reawakened in spring. But the fact remains that the garden lives year round. It simply does not look like the summer; but it is every bit as much a summation of our humanity during the winter months as during the rest of the year.
Just ask the corn dolls, the Raggedy Ann dolls or even Barbie. They answer with joy, hopefulness and ultimate fertility that they promise during these harsh months.
This article appeared in the January 18, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia National Inquirer.