“The significance of man is that he is insignificant and is aware of it.” – Carl Becker, Progress and Power (1963)
The start of a new year is somewhat arbitrary – a contrived number that some pre-Julians invented and some Gregorians amended – but nonetheless January 1st has come and gone again, and I, for one, have experienced it as a sort of reset. 2015 was a busy, difficult year, both personally and globally, and I don’t think many of us were sorry to see the back of it. And although today is really just another rising and setting of the sun, it’s the fourteenth of its 2016 kind, and I feel resolved to carry this refreshed, reset spirit through the year.
A word on New Year’s resolutions – they’re stupid and I hate them. It’s January, for God’s sake. Why anyone in their right mind would give up alcohol and go on a diet in the middle of winter is beyond me. If anything, I’d argue it’s time to eat and drink more; hibernation isn’t due to end for a good several months. My friend Andrew recently announced that he feels 2016 will be the year of success and excess, and I’ll be damned if I’ve heard a better aspiration. So if you’re looking for a little #PaleoWorkOutDetoxInspo, look elsewhere, friend. I’m dishing out a whole different type of advice, and hashtags are lame.
I have resolved to make 2016 the year of noticing more and doing less, or at least less running around like a headless chicken trying to do all things and accomplishing none. The first thing to go in my new and improved, refreshed state-of-mind are the iDevices, at least temporarily. We have decided in our house to forego the instruments of tyranny for one day a week: no connectivity, no social media, no Candy Crush. With luck and fortune on our sides, this might even become two luxurious days a week. When you read it in print, it doesn’t sound so revolutionary – we’re just trying not to work on the weekend. But imagine actually not checking your email (or Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Grindr, whatever your pleasure) for a day or two, and think of the inner peace you might actually attain.
So with all this Saturday and Sunday free time on our hands, we’re ready for step two, the noticing more part. I propose that you step outside – into your garden if you have one, or into a public park if you’re an urbanite. Smell the air; feel the moisture on your skin (El Niño finally came, you guys!); see the seedheads and berries and structures and forms around you. No, it isn’t spring yet, but the garden lives on, in a state of quiet dormancy, not one of death. I’ve written about the garden in winter before; it doesn’t have the vibrancy and mad energy of new spring growth, but it has a quiet majesty that is sitting there waiting for us to absorb if we can just tear ourselves away from The Tech Revolution for a minute, and return our attention to the natural world. Human beings weren’t made to be cooped up indoors; we are supposed to engage with the natural world around us, and somehow, somewhere, we lost our way. I’m a landscape designer, for crying out loud, and until this month, it had been a very long time since I’d stepped into my own garden and crumbled the soil between my fingers or noticed the leaves turn colour. I constantly lecture my clients (sorry, clients) on the importance of seasonality in the garden, this measure of time passing but also of rebirth and renewal. And I haven’t been practicing what I preach, but I resolve to make a change.
A 2011 Dutch study linked 30 minutes of gardening to a significant reduction of cortisol levels and increases in positive mood. The simple act of cutting a stem is a simple, repetitive, pleasing task that can go a long way towards coping with depression. This is not frontal-lobe work. It is simple, sometimes physically taxing, and really quite Zen. Your plants won’t ask you stupid questions or demand something be done yesterday or refuse to eat their dinner or annoy you with the way they chew. They grow and die back and grow again, unconcerned with our busy-for-no-reason lives.
Gardening is good for us, but I don’t want to suggest that I’m counseling doing more. On the contrary, I urge you to do less. Say no to one of the many things on your agenda, and go outside. If you live in a temperate Northern Hemisphere climate, try your hand at some dormant-season pruning. (Here are The Linden Green’s quick and dirty Rose Pruning Notes.) Or don’t bother; everything will grow anyway. If you live in the frozen North, don’t do anything more than step out the door and notice that the natural world is happening all around you, whether it’s blanketed in snow, or brown and decomposing. Life is still there, garnering its energy and regenerating, ready to burst anew into bud and blossom in a few months’ time.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll tackle assessing and reimaging your garden, the truest of winter gardening tasks. So I’ll set you on that path with this thought from Monty Don:
In a garden, context is everything. This understanding of context goes beyond the garden fence. I have become increasingly aware of the importance of relating a garden to its surroundings. By this I do not just mean the immediate visual backdrop as this might well be something that the garden tries to get away from. What I think is more relevant is an awareness of the history, geology, climate, and broad plant culture of the area. This will make the garden better and connect the gardener to something more than their own little world. (Monty Don; The Complete Gardener, London, 2003)
And that, dear readers, is the bigger picture that we’ve lost along the way and are trying so desperately to find our way back to: our context in the larger world, relating ourselves to our surroundings. When we take that step back into the physical, natural world, we begin to find our way back to togetherness, purpose, sanity, context.
So yes – success and excess in 2016, but in a gustatory, sensuous, pleasurable sense, not in a striving, doing, achieving kind of way. Have a long, boozy meal with good friends and open that third bottle of wine – it’s delicious, and the hangover won’t last forever. And remember that in a few short months, no matter how unlikely it may currently seem, you will enjoy those meals, and the company of your friends, outside.
When the Present has latched its postern behind
my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?
Thomas Hardy, Afterwards, 1917