winter


During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close.  Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family.  This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.

Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland.  It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb.  I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.

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It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place.  I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.

Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.

Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage.  I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months.  Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements.  When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home.  Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.

They have names now; these storms.  Maybe it will help.  If we personify them maybe then we can blame them, increase the distance between them and us. These storms are hitting us, it’s them; we didn’t make them.  We don’t make them.  Storms have been around in wilder and more powerful forms for far longer than we have been around.  The weather is like stone and the mountains; indifferent to us. Yet, we may have encouraged them somehow.  Climate change; can we deny it anymore.  It’s nothing new.  Five hundred generations ago we were plunged into the sudden climate change of the Younger Dryas. This is the climate change that has been occupying my thoughts at the moment, how it must have been, how we coped, how we did not.  It wasn’t our making then, but the echoes of it still hang about in our oldest stories.

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Storm Frank is slamming into the cottage tonight. Calm down Frank, please calm down.  I didn’t go near the chickens tonight.  We lifted the eggs earlier, when all was calm, and I know they have enough food and water from last night.  I suspect that if I had tried to check in on them their door would have been ripped off it’s hinges as that side of the cottage is a bit of a wind tunnel when the wind blows from the south. One benefit that Frank is bringing us is the effect on the wood stove.  Strong wind means that there is a good draw on the fire that seems to make it easier to regulate.  Although the air vents have to be closed down to nearly air tight to stop the fire getting too hot.  Like many people this Christmas; I am reading ‘Norwegian wood’.  Tonight I read the stove and fire chapters and experimented with the top down burn.  I am converted. Now every other way to light a wood stove is just wrong.  The stove is glowing, and Frank is making lots of noise outside; it’s time to sit down with a good book.

A last minute present was delivered by the postman this morning; fondant laced with pollen.  Under a full moon I slipped this package onto the bees tonight and whispered that they are not to eat it until tomorrow morning.  It’s said that you must always tell the bees the news.  The news is that we have made it past the solstice.  A few sleeps ago sunrise caught me after  I woke up. I have an image of it in my head, a vague echo; a memory imperfect yet feeling like perfection. I hadn’t seen the sunrise for weeks even though it had been hanging around on the edges of my mind. At this time of year there is always the thoughts of the local standing stones lining up with the winter sun, and thoughts of chambers like Maes Howe.  Why?  Why did they do it, and why does it haunt my winter thoughts.  Maybe it’s obvious when the nights are so long and the days are so short.  Maybe it’s obvious when I am dragged from my warm bed on a cold winter morning with the little lady screaming, “Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet!” The pancakes still need made and I am groggy with winter dreams.  It seems routine until I am walking the little lady down the stairs and I look out the window.  The hills, the sleeping bare trees, the stone grey sky, and then the sun creeping over the forest reminds me there is nothing routine in any of this.  The epiphany charges me with enthusiasm; time for solstice pancakes.  
There is no point reminding the bees about the solstice as they are far more tuned in to these things than I.  Instead, the news is that the house is bursting with excitement.  The little lady and the little man are dreaming of santa.  They are full of the hope of presents under the tree.  The littlest man is too small for such things and a bowl full of breakfast and the sight of the lovely Sharon will probably fill him with equal delight. Happy solstice. Merry Christmas.

In between the midwinter madness of tiny ice snowmen, chickens tricked into laying eggs by car batteries, and sleeping hives of honey bees…….I paid for my chickenfeed and received the docket to take to the feed yard.  Then the man behind the counter passed me a thick brown envelope.  I looked confused, I must have.  I asked incredulously, “what’s this?”  Then the man looked humbly confused and questioned, “Sir?”  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a lady accept a similar envelope by reflex with gratefulness.  Then in an instant I put it all together, the time of year, the local farm supply business, the lady, the man behind the counter, my inexperience of it all.  I replied, “of course, yes! Thank you very much.”  That was it, that was the moment.  I the townie had just received a token towards my transformation into culchie. I had just been given the farm supplier calender.  We now have the tractors, the chickens, the balers, and the snow covered sheep to mark the march of time.

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It sometimes feels like we skirt around the edges of the winter days. We wake up in the dark and cling to the cold light of the stars and maybe the moon, before driving off to work.  Then we work.  On the way home I hate the light, the light of cars.  The density of city traffic is something I feel glad to leave, into the dark.  It’s with irony that I found myself working in daylight today; on the shortest day.  In between shovelling the sludge of fallen leaves and the foul fowl bedding in the chicken house, I would find myself looking up at the sky, the novelty of it; daylight.

 

The chickens also had their shortest day today as the car battery feeding them their false daylight was flat.  The electrickery of the LED lights seems to be working to some degree.  The two young hens still lay continuously; they lack wisdom and know no better.   From the older hens we have just received two eggs this week, something unknown until late February.

 

We used the eggs to bake a cheesecake.  The little man and I smashed biscuits into crumbs and mixed things in bowls.  This is a present for his teachers.  Baked things are the best of presents for teachers.  I received a gingerbread me this year from my A level class.  It’s nice to receive something that someone has put a lot of effort into, more importantly; took delight in making it.

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Overcharged with daylight and exhausted from baking, the little man, the little lady and myself lay on the sofa and watched the 1970 classic, ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town.’  Then I kept the light to a deliberate solstice low as we played lego by the woodstove.

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Later on I fell into my solstice tradition.  I opened up Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Darkness and Light.’  The lovely sharon looked at me with a little confusion and asked if I read that every year.  I ask her how could I not:


Mid-December, the still point of the turning year…………

I plan to use the electricity from a car battery to encourage the chickens to lay eggs.  It is not through some gruesome electroshock therapy, but with light.  They are tied to light and the tide of the seasons.  I plan to trick them.

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Last year the eggs stopped coming around this time of year and did not begin to return until the end of January.  This year, out of ten hens only the two youngest have continued to lay.  Even now they are slowing down to an egg only every few days. It’s amazing that they are so domesticated that they do this at all.  Under the pressures and margins of commercial farming, a chicken has been bred that can lay an egg every twenty five hours nearly all year.  The wild birds must look on with shock at this ability. Although the wild birds have limited energy, having to forage far and wide at the whims of the seasons.  The chickens get everything given to them.  The chickens might argue that everything is taken away.

We live in darkness. Around midwinter the day will be only seven hours long, and most of that is usually dull and grey.  This is where the elecktrickery comes in…. A car batter, a timer, and six hundred lumens of LED light might fool them into spring.  Light controls their cycles, needing only nine or ten hours of dark roosting.  I feel a little bit guilty with this con, but then I also feel guilty buying eggs from the shop.  A little of the guilt might be offset if I rig up our small solar panel to it.  If that works then there may be a certain poetry to the setup.  Instead of using electricity I will be using the battery to bottle the sunlight and give them a little back in the long winter nights.