The winter landscape outside my window looks bleak. I see white snow, the dull browns of dead plants, the angles of bare trees, and not much else. When I wander through it, though, the landscape reveals its bones.
A few years ago, I began a project of “rewilding” the acre of land around my house. Because I have added native plants and allowed others to grow wherever birds and breeze dropped their seeds, vegetation that provides food and shelter for wildlife is prevailing. The gardens do not look tidy, especially in fall when dead stalks stand among unraked leaves, but my non-human neighbors have little care for the aesthetics of the place.
When the snow piles up, those dead stalks hold their dried seedheads above it, which allows black-capped chickadees, one of our winter birds, to dine on the seeds. Evening primrose seems to be the birds’ favorite. Chicory pokes its head through the snow and burdock’s burrs hook me when I walk by. As the stalks of these tall plants collapse, they create tangles of brush that shelter birds and other critters from the wind and snow.
Mice shelter under the ground-covering wintergreen and nibble its berries. Red squirrels dine on the cones of the eastern hemlock. Wild turkeys pick through the low-growing plants for leftover fruit. Seedlings of cedar, maple, oak, and birch, left to grow wherever they took root, are browse for deer.
Years ago, before I learned how native plants support wildlife, I read that gardens should have bones. Landscape plants chosen for the look of their bare branches or stalks were meant to be added to the garden to provide interest in winter. Those, along with evergreen shrubs pruned into topiary, created a garden design that was pleasing to look at year-round, yet no thought was given to the true purpose of bones – to provide support and structure for an organism or the whole ecosystem of the garden, even in the depths of winter.
Like many gardeners, I can get caught up in the very human tendency to make my life look good on the outside and neglect the more essential structure of my being. Winter invites a pulling inward and a dropping of the mask of color and flash that I show the world the rest of the year.
Gazing through the window, I contemplate my own barren landscape. I get down to the bones. What is my essence? What inner resources can I call on to get through the season? If I am alone, trapped by snow and ice, and unable to reenergize off the feedback of others, what will sustain my spirit?
It is not easy, when the garden is in full bloom, to think of what will be left behind in winter. It is necessary, however, to nurture the bones. Just as the remains of plants provide for birds, squirrels, and other animals, the practices I cultivate throughout the year provide for my physical and emotional health in winter. Meditation, gentle movement, and nourishing foods help sustain me and support introspection through this seemingly lifeless season.
And, of course, time in nature reconnects me to the quiet vitality that exists in the bones.
From my heart to yours,