The Songbirds of Winter

Nederlandsche_vogelen_(KB)_-_Turdus_merula_(016f)Nicola here. It’s December 28th and day four of the twelve days of Christmas. These days when I wake up in the mornings it’s usually still dark so I doze for a bit before getting up to make the morning tea and let the dogs out. One of the first sounds I often hear, as dawn is breaking, is birdsong.

In the well-known song, on the fourth day of Christmas, my true loves gives to me “four calling birds” as well as the three French hens, two turtle doves and the partridge in the pear tree. Originally, however the words were “four colly birds,” which in 1780 when the song was written meant four blackbirds. These were the European blackbirds that are the colour of coal dust. The words were changed to “calling birds” in some versions at the start of the 20th century as so many people didn’t know that “colly bird” was a northern dialect word for a black bird.

In another old nursery rhyme four and twenty blackbirds are baked in a pie and “when the pie was opened the birds began to sing”. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds (although bad enough); in medieval cuisine, the live birds were only put under the pie crust at the last minute to give everyone a surprise when it was served. It certainly would have given you a surprise, I imagine, to find what the blackbirds might have deposited in your pie! (The picture of the blackbird is by Cornelius Nozeman from the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, part of which is available on Wikimedia Commons.)

This brings me back to waking up in the early morning hearing birdsong. I had thought it was a blackbird in the garden but Robin it turns out that they don’t start singing until the end of January when the male blackbirds start to claim their territories. No, it is the bright and beautiful little European Robin that is perched on our weeping pear tree, singing away as the dawn breaks. Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!

What do you wake up to in the mornings?  Music, a news programme, an alarm, birdsong or like me a nice up of tea? If you would like to listen to the dawn chorus there is a link here.

Ask A Wench – The Influence of the Seasons

The other avenueNicola here, introducing this month’s Ask A Wench topic, which was sent in by Valerie Moore, who wins a book from me as a thank you. Valerie asks:

“How do the seasons affect your style of writing, if at all?” 

It’s an excellent question and gave us all much to ponder on. Do the seasons affect our actual writing style or is it more that the seasons affect our moods and this affects our writing? Certainly in my case, I find it extremely difficult to write about a season that is very different from the one that I’m in. At the moment I’m writing a book set in July whilst I’m in an English winter. I’m trying my best to remember the heat of the sun and the scent of roses whilst stepping out into the stinging rain and the cold wind. Winter can sometimes bring my mood down as well; that definitely affects my writing if not my style, and makes it more difficult. So here are the Wenches’ thoughts on this ever-fascinating topic, some lovely “hygge” ideas and some wonderful photography of the seasons from around the world.

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The Four Seasons

What’s your favorite season, and what are some of the special things that you love about it?

Autumn2017 As March is here, and bringing with it the first change in season of the year, the Wenches decided to use this month’s Ask-A-Wench feature to wax poetic on the above question: 

Anne: In the Southern Hemisphere, specifically in Melbourne, the worst heat of summer is, I hope, behind us and we're gradually slipping into autumn, which is my favorite season. The days are sunny and bright and nicely warm, but not roasting, and the nights are blissfully cool, sometimes with a refreshing nip in the air. Already I have bulbs nosing their little green shoots out of the earth, while the summer flowering plants keep producing.  It's a fruitful time of year and as well as eating lots of lovely fruit, I've made jam from the produce of friends' fruit trees and berry bushes.

2018Maytone2March is also the time of year I head a thousand miles north to Queensland, to attend my annual writers retreat. It's not a big event, nothing like a conference, just eight or nine writers meeting for a week, to reflect on our year, to plan our writing, to brainstorm, talk writing and publishing and, of course, to write. We've been doing it now since 2007 — that's the year I first met Mary Jo, Pat and Jo Beverley, well before I became a wench.

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Winter Delights

Joanna here: Snowman 3

It’s always seemed to me that cold needs snow in it. Cold without snow is like ham without eggs, Jekyll without Hyde, clotted cream without scones — which is to say, sad and pointless.

My favorite winter activity, in fact, is building a snowman. I like this because it’s ephemeral and my art is much improved if it doesn’t last too long. Snow is a medium that does not encourage a quest for perfection. One must accept the limits of the whole snowman realism thing. And it’s childish. I like to be free and deliberately childish once in a while. Making snowmen is, I’m sure, an ancient human activity. I connect to my presocietal ancestors.

Also, you end up with a snowman which is kinda a lucky thing to have about the place.

So I asked the other Wench what was their favorite activity in the winter, assuming I’d get back responses like, “sitting in coffee shops, doing edits” or “drinking hot chocolate with Peppermint Schnapps.”

Here is what they have to say:


Wench anneAnne
— you know she’s in Australia so she’s turned around from the rest of us —

We're coming into spring here, but I live in a city famed — infamed? 😉 — for its changeable weather, so it's teasing us with glimpses of spring and then reverting back to cold, wet and gloomy, which is our usual winter weather. We almost never get snow and when it does hit (about once in a decade) we all get wildly excited and take photos and make miniature snowmen — miniature because there's never enough snow for anything more than about a foot high — and that's pushing it — and the snow only ever lasts a few hours. So, failing the excitement of snow, winter for me is curling up somewhere warm and cosy with a good book, preferably beside a crackling open fire.

Andrea is an expert in snow: Wenches andrea 2

Growing up, I loved skiing. But the icy trails of New England no longer hold quite the same appeal, and as I don’t often get out to the powdery slopes of Colorado or Utah, these days I find oth er means of locomotion when the snow falls. I’ve unbuckled my downhill boots and tend to lace up my hiking boots in winter. I love walking down by the harbor near where I live and enjoying the subtle play of light on the water, both on cold, clear days and in stormy weather. There’s an austere beauty to the limited palette of winter colors and the always changing patterns of shadow and waves. I always go home to my writing desk feeling rechanged by the wonders of Nature. 

Pat takes a California view:

Wench pat 1My favorite winter activity is to run away from winter. We've spent our lives living in snow country, spent a week without electricity and running water, lived on kerosene heaters, the whole rigamarole. Now we live in Southern California and we go whale sailing, take long scenic walks on the beach, and travel. If it qualifies as an outside activity–I sit on the patio and read and write! It took a long time to shake the snow off our boots, but we're enjoying the sand!

Susan is another old winter veteran:

Spending my childhood in a small town in Upstate New York, I grew up doing plenty of winter activities Wench mjp 2 British Virgins– skiing at Lake Placid, sledding and ice skating in the local park (and my dad would flood the backyard, which froze into a perfect skating rink for us all winter). We built snow-people and forts and had epic neighborhood snowball fights. Truly a winter wonderland up there. Fast forward to my high school years, when we moved south to Maryland — where the opportunities for months of snowy winter fun were not so much. Scraping a few inches of dirty snow for a snowball to pelt a sister or a friend – nah. Now and then, though, the Mid-Atlantic does produce some very respectable snow. Years later, I was as eager as my kids to get my coat and boots on to help build snow-people, snow forts and go sledding down our nice steep hill, but good snow just wasn't reliable each year. Nowadays, I still very much love snow and snowstorms. But I'm more likely to be shoveling the driveway (though my husband does get the occasional surprise snowball – I'm cautious about this, as his return volleys are not near as gentle as mine!). I do love to go for a walk in the snow, especially when it's drifting peacefully and beautifully out of the sky. 

Then I stomp the snow off my boots, go inside, make some hot tea and curl up with a good book!   

Nicola says:

Nicola here. My favourite outdoor winter activity is taking the dogs out for a walk in the snow on a Wench nicola 1 Monty in the snowcold, crispy day with a blue sky overhead and the wind on my face. I find it refreshing and reinvigorating and the dogs go completely mad with excitement. It’s great fun watching them! I think maybe everything smells sharper to them on a snowy day. They also love the texture of the snow, jumping in it and running through it.  Ethel saw snow at the beginning of this year as a tiny puppy but if we get any this winter she will be able to go out and play in it. Angus loves it almost as much as going to the seaside! The picture is of Monty, our old Labrador, helpfully fetching my hat from out of a snowdrift.

Of course being so weather-dependent, this isn’t an outdoor activity you can guarantee and there have been plenty of years when all we have had is grey rain and dull skies. It’s difficult to whip up the same enthusiasm for a dog walk under those circumstances! The forecast this year is for a hard winter so we will wrap up warm and get out there.

And finally,

Mary Jo here.  I can't honestly think of any outdoor winter activity that matches up to curling up inside Wench mjp 1 with a good book and a cat on the lap!  But I admit that after a fresh snow, I enjoy a gentle stroll to appreciate the beauty of pristine winter. 

But I have much more enthusiasm for that winter activity known as a visit to the Caribbean!  Appreciated all the more because of what we've left behind. <G>

What about you?

As November swings past Thanksgiving and into December, what do you look forward to doing outside? What did you used to do that stays with you still in memory.

One lucky commenter will win a copy of my novella, Gideon and the Den of Thieves.

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The Colors of January

Nicola here, talking about getting out and about in the dark days of January. Although the shortest day is gone the nights are still long and dark and in dull weather it sometimes feels as though there is little natural light at all. It's at times like this that my thoughts turn to the warmth and sunshine of the Southern Hemisphere!

I've been trying to get out as much as I can, walking the dog, enjoying the sunshine on the fine days, Redwing and looking at the colors of January. The natural world isn't as drab as it sometimes feels in the winter. On one of my walks the other day I saw this bird – a redwing – sheltering from the rain and wind in the hedgerow. When it flew I noticed that it had the most beautiful bright flashes of red on its side. There are plenty of other splashes of red about too; in the berries that line the hedges and brighten gardens.

DonningtonA few days ago we went on a trip to Donnington Castle near Newbury. Donnington is the ruin of a medieval castle that was destroyed in the English Civil War of the 17th century. The Civil War battlefied of Newbury (1644) is in the fields below the castle. It was a rare sunny day with gorgeous blue skies and we walked all round the castle site and the battlefield and along the river. The blue of the sky made a wonderful backdrop for the castle ruins.

Looking around the garden for color I've found the bright yellow flowers of my mahonia plant which also has a beautiful scent at this time of year and I guess it won't be long until the first bulbs start to appear…

Which colors of January do you like the best? The blue of the sky or the white of the snow? Or are you a Rochester and Meg lucky person living in a warm climate with many beautiful birds, flowers and other things to brighten the month? I'm sitting looking at the pewter grey sky as another storm rolls in so please do add some colors to my day!

(Angus hasn't seen snow yet so here is a picture of Rochester and his friend Meg enjoying last January's snow!)