Winter just officially arrived two days ago, with 30+cms of recent snow and -23C windchills, so I know it takes a little faith and optimism to celebrate that our patch of the planet really has begun returning toward the sun. But, yes, it's true: field season 2009 has just been conceived!
And here in Toronto, today, December 23rd, is the first day we'll see an extra minute of sunlight:Solstice season in the city always reminds me of the essay Lost Rites - Searching for an authentic way to worship nature where Maria T. Stadtmueller looks for, and finds, her own honest way to celebrate winter solstice in New York City.
Here are some excerpts:
"Like a lot of people seeking some spiritual connection to the natural world, I read up on Native American spirituality, but it felt like a cultural trespassing to demand a seat for my white ass in the sweat lodge. What I am, I realized, is spiritually hungry and European.Stadtmueller is talking about a holly like the one pictured above, perhaps a European or hopefully a American Holly ilex opaca, whose native range includes New York, but doesn't reach this far north.
[I've also] attended pagan rites... and the scenario is inevitably the same, with much ado about robes, men who like to wear Maybelline, and no detectable spiritual substance. ...I can't keep a straight face at pagan pageants.
Surely, I thought, I'm not the only one here with years of environmental activism under her belt. Surely I'm not the only one who, in working to protect them, has made herself learn more than she ever intended to know about monarch butterflies, coral reefs, or old-growth root systems. Then why aren't we celebrating what we know about the natural world? Why instead are we beseeching the sun to return in the spring when we all learned in fourth grade why it will?
There was one solstice gathering a few years ago that felt truly celebratory. There was no ceremony, no costumes, just ten shivering strangers bundled up for a Central Park tour titled "Winter Solstice in New York: Who Survives?"
As we headed into the park that Saturday morning, our two female park rangers occasionally stopped us to describe how particular birds or bushes withstand a Northeast winter. These women knew their turf: They pointed out lofty holes in oak trees where a half-hidden raccoon would be sleeping off a rough night in Upper West Side alleys; they knew where to spot a hawk when all we had noticed was the scattering sparrows. We stopped in front of a glossy green holly tree, a real extrovert against December's taupe and gray. Holly leaves survive, one guide explained, because the tree stores water not in the leaf cells, but in interstices between cells; there the water can freeze and expand, and the cells remain intact. A thrill bubbled up through my half-frozen marrow at the genius and beauty of this little system. Oh, you are wise, I thought. You are glorious! This tree, and these women who knew it, and the light that clicked on in our faces when we knew it too--this was a catechism of sorts, nature's Magnificent in which science could sing its stanza."
Our native holly is the Common Winterberry Ilex verticillata (below).
Unlike the typical Christmas season hollies most of us are familiar with, Winterberry is deciduous, losing its leaves in the autumn, which is fine because those bright red berries are their charm. Winterberry is a “very common” native in our Ecodistrict (7E-4), and "regionally rare" (L3) in the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority area. Come Novemeber it's easy to spot growing in wet areas. How wet? In this pic, where it was one among many along roadside ditches NW of Carden Plain, you'll notice it's growing between a wet ditch and a swamp. Although I haven't tried it yet, apparently it's also an adaptable garden plant too.
Tip: If you do decide to bring Winterberry to your garden, remember, like all holly trees and shrubs, it's dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. And, as always, don't settle for cultivars or distantly sourced plants. Why? One example is that even among plants of the same species, in the same garden, those sourced from different local eco-types may bloom or fruit at different times, but our local animals, pollinators or migrating birds depend on our plants, the plants they co-evolved with, to flower and fruit at their unique specific time. Besides, you don't have to settle: our area has some excellent native plant nurseries (see the list of "native plant nurseries & sources" in the links at the right) who can help you source ethically propagated local Winterberry.
Again, happy holly days, merry Solstice, and all the best in garden and field season 2009!