A bunting of autumn leaves is still draped across the trees.
These are all that are left, a remainder of the year slipping away. The rest now lay on the ground, the once-rich colours fading, trampled beneath the mud as they slowly become part of the earth. An entanglement of brambles line the woodland floor, the berries have long over-ripened and rotted away. The leaves of the bracken fronds are dry, crisp and curled.
The woodland has slipped its winter coat on.
But whilst many species are heading into their long sleep, others bring life to the landscape. Up high in the eaves red berries are gathering amongst the spikes of the holly bush. They are joined by thick clusters of ripe hawthorn berries which dominate the woodland edges, and the rich, dark blackthorn sloes promise a delicious, wintry tipple. It is quiet now but the woods will see a myriad of visitors to feast on these delights; blackbirds, thrushes, long tailed tits and Scandinavian visitors in the form of redwings, fieldfares and waxwings, the latter’s 80s glamrock hairstyles and Adam Ant-style face-paint making them instantly recognisable. Today, a lone robin flits between the empty branches, chest bright against the stark backdrop as its hunts for insects along the bark.
Despite the wealth of berries on offer, I’m here after one in particular; mistletoe. The plants hang in huge balls amongst the branches of other trees. At this time of year the female plants produce translucent-white berries, favoured by blackcaps and mistle thrushes. They enjoy the fatty flesh but leave the seeds, allowing grow new plants to grow.
For us, mistletoe symbolises Christmas and a stolen kiss, briefly part of the festivities before it is forgotten again come January. The link to romance is another Nordic import, an old folktale linking the goddess Frigg with the berries, claiming she produced tears of the tiny pearls of fruit when she cried for her son, Baldr, after his death by a spear of mistletoe. She decreed that the plant should represent love and peace instead having negative connotations.
But we too once held mistletoe in high regard. Pagan druids felt that mistletoe was sacred. Mistletoe is parasitic, growing on other plants such as hawthorn, oaks and apple trees. The druids, who worshipped oaks due to their size and longevity, would cut mistletoe from ancient oaks with a golden sickle and distribute it amongst the people to help protect them against ‘evil’ and keep them safe throughout the dark winters – something we could all do with after the year we’ve just had.
Despite wandering the woods with my eyes trained above me, I havent been successful – there is no mistletoe here. So I make for home empty handed, instead I plan to stop off at the local garden centre to select a large sprig to take home with me. I’ll hang it above my front door, hoping it will bring a little luck in darker times.
On the path back to the car the robin reappears and launches into song. I stop to enjoy its music, enjoying a front row seat at one of the few concerts we are allowed to attend right now. It’s music is uplifting, the notes almost echo between the trees, filling the silence with a moment of joy.
This year has been difficult, but the one place we have been able to seek solace is in nature. From the sunny days spent on socially distanced walks or relaxing in the garden during the first lock down, to the comfort of the colours and mist-filled mornings of the second, nature has supported us.
As the landscape settles into its winter rest, it is easy to see things as bleak. But we need to look at it through nature’s eyes; it is taking a break, a breather, time to rebuild. Because beneath the frosted woodland floor, seeds will be waiting for the springs’ warmth and sunlight to begin pushing up and start their life.
And with the new year comes new hope, and a reminder that everything will, eventually, bloom again.