Dara McAnulty: Why I love winter’s grey and brown days
Teenage nature author Dara McAnulty on a season of growth and contemplation
“Rising in darkness is the hardest part for some, but I have always enjoyed it ever since those very early childhood mornings with Mum.”
This article relates to the upcoming Irish Times Winter Nights festival. More details at the bottom of this page. For full line-up and tickets go to irishtimes.com/winternights.
Winter darkness, the ghost as it breathes the blast of freezing wind. Snow days are magical, but what about the rest of winter?
The drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour. The absence of abundance reveals contours and shape in the land. Structure, spires of bareness. Welcome in the gloaming, embrace the night as it takes up more of the day. Feel the sky closer than ever, as it presses, sometimes gently, more often forcefully. The beauty of it. The fragility of the air and the tendency of darkness to overshadow all seasons.
Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed. Their stories, messages, artefacts. More darkness means more quietness in the evenings, when all that can be heard is the robin’s song, the rook, jackdaw, raven or hooded crow, the distant squealing of gulls. I can hear so much more between.
Rising in darkness is the hardest part for some, but I have always enjoyed it ever since those very early childhood mornings with Mum – stories smuggled under blankets, the games of chess before sunrise, whatever the season. By the time it was light it felt like we’d done so much.
Often I rose alone, to trace the sounds before dawn, the ticking clock, the buzz of the oil heater coming on, the creak of the radiators as they filled with hot water. Cogs turning to set the day in motion before the sky brightened slightly and the jackdaws danced on the extension roof. Then a singing robin. The spilling out of a Lego box. The sound of wood on wood as I laid out Dad’s old chess set, the brass latch falling apart, his name written inked in Gaelic script.
To me these are the brightest memories, bell-clear, crisp as our footfall that afternoon.
Getting ready in the still of the dark is the best way to prepare for the day, etching before daylight, making marks, watching the curtain of time open up before the day unveils. So much more can be seen in winter, the shiver of branches as wind travels through, more perching shapes too, and so much uncovering still to come.
I vividly remember a day in December when everywhere along and around the Lagan towpath was illuminated with so much white. I remember the coat I wore, the beige duffel one, because I loved it. Blue wellies. My curls have grown long, and Lorcan is running now. Are these his first steps? What was I? Three years old?
I wonder if other people can remember this far back. To me these are the brightest memories, bell-clear, crisp as our footfall that afternoon. The sun is low but bright and there is a long stretch before we meet the willow trees, arching over the river. Possibilities hang low. An island of life approaching.
Instinctively, I quieten and move more slowly; I see a rippling, unsettling the reflection of branches. Smooth back, black, slinking. I point it out to Dad and we sit stock-still. Mum cuddles Lorcan and whispers in his ear so he stays still too.
Shadowy shape, otter, raising its head and swimming – we see it so clearly, and there are no other people. Just stillness and otter, otter and stillness. I feel the weight of the moment, a tear slips down my cheek. I don’t know why it escaped. Otters do that.
And when it turns around and disappears, more life fills its absence: beak first, a blue light darting across the river, a kingfisher so quick I must have imagined it.
This is how the sobbing starts, such great sobbing. Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking. The same way that sound carries further. Looking up and seeing the parts of things that are always hidden.
I still keep the memory to pull out whenever the darkness becomes too much
Of course, the length of winter does take its toll. It becomes overwhelming, especially when the expectancy overtakes you with wishes for spring.
After that Otter Day, the snow melted, and it seemed that every day after that was greyer. I could still see the colours that weren’t really there, halcyon, the shimmering ripples.
And now, I still keep the memory to pull out whenever the darkness becomes too much, when the night is more of a foe than friend and it cloaks you and presses so heavily that you can barely see or breathe. Inside, that’s where I store these moments, accumulated in a cabinet of noticings and happenings, brought out when I need them most, to illuminate.
I must go into the world to find new things. They are always there. Always.
This is an extract from Dara McAnulty’s book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, published by Little Toller Books.
The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival is a series of online talks and events taking place from January 25th to 29th. On Friday 28th at 6.30pm, Dara will talk about his love of nature with Irish Times journalist Freya McClements.
For full line-up and tickets go to irishtimes.com/winternights. A single ticket costing €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25. Just make sure you are signed in and the discount will be automatically applied.
The festival is supported by Peugeot