Just a week ago, I saw barn swallows sitting in their masses on the telephone poles; poised, as if waiting. These small birds will migrate all the way to South Africa, some as far as Cape Town, during the European winter. I find the thought of them travelling to my home country beautifully poetic, even if it makes me a little sad. This week they are gone.
The winter months are at our doorstep. The leaves are already changing into their brilliant autumn hues, and the wind has a bit more bite to it than it did a couple of weeks ago. Darkness shows up earlier in the evenings and lingers later in the mornings. The people of Donegal are reluctantly digging out their winter coats. Like the swallows, we can sense it; change is in the air. As our South African friends and family celebrate the arrival of spring in the Southern hemisphere, we’re getting ready for the long winter ahead. We mourn the end of the blissful summer days, but I won’t allow myself to dwell on that for too long. I’ve found there’s a particular magic to winter, especially here in the North-Western corner of the island.
The winter months force you to slow down; to stop, look, and think. You need extra time in the mornings to defrost your windscreen, and your drive to work is slow on the slippery roads. This gives you time to look at the impressive snow-clouds rolling in from a distance, or to really appreciate the shapes of the bare trees. You have to walk with care and a great deal of concentration on the icy sidewalks, allowing you time to feel the rain on your face before you rush off to your next appointment. While you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, you have a few moments to watch the 9 o’clock sunrise. A dark, rainy evening can be spent sipping a glass of red wine in front of the fire with your cat on your lap. It’s a time to read books, paint, learn a different language; a time to dwell on memories.
When the temperature drops below zero degrees, everything freezes and the natural world feels paused. I remember a particularly magical walk at Ard’s Forest; the sun was out, but I don’t think the temperature ever climbed over -3 degrees. The sun made a low, lazy arc across the horizon; somehow it felt like late afternoon no matter the time of day. We arrived at midday, but the ice crystals that had formed during the night were still intact where long shadows never lifted. The ice sat on the fat green leaves like a dusting of fine powdered sugar. The small rivulets that run down the mountainside towards the ocean were stopped midway in their journey. Frozen water lay across the footpaths, over rocks, and on the sandy beaches. Even the bogs were frozen solid. Normally, if you had the misfortune of missing a step, your foot would disappear in the soft mud within seconds; and if you were very unlucky, you might not get your boot back! But that day the moisture in the mud froze with the rest of the world and where I stepped on the bog, I could hear the crunching of the frozen grass beneath my boots. We walked towards a secluded beach nestled between a forest and the foot of the hills. Footprints from the previous day were captured in the sand and covered with millions of crystals, like small pins. It was like walking in a dream world; a frozen beach, guarding yesterday’s memories. I went home that day with a warm heart and very cold toes.
I vividly remember driving home one evening during the heart of winter. Dark stormy nights and short stormy days were our constant companions during this time. For weeks, snow, wind, and sleet came down in torrential downpours, transforming the landscape. Every morning, before the morning rush, heavy machinery would scrape the roads clean. Mounds of dirty snow built up next to the road where it repeatedly melted and froze again, forming an icy barricade. It felt like a hostile barrier between two worlds, as if we were somehow shut off from nature. On this particular evening, the wind was quiet and the sky was covered with thick fleecy clouds. As I drove home, it started to snow. I’d never seen anything like it; soft flakes gently drifting across pools of yellow light from the street lamps, settling ever so lightly on every surface. I remember how quiet it felt; a deep silence that clung to the world. That night, I spent hours staring out of the window from a dark room, watching the gentle snowfall build up on fences and trees, making the world soft again. It felt like a sigh of relief; an exhalation after so much build-up. A fairy tale for one night.
By morning, it was raining again and the new snowfall was part of the brown slush filling up the roads and driveways, trapping some people in their homes.
I think of the winter months as a time of beauty and contrasts. One cold evening, I was sitting in my home office, typing away on my laptop and dreaming about sunny days in warmer corners of the world. It was already dark when the five o’clock moon rose above the snow-covered treetops in my backyard. I watched as it glided across the horizon, grazing the bare branches before disappearing behind the clouds. Its soft glow spilled over the white landscape and, in those moments, the night held a sense of expectancy and magic. It captured the essence of the season; quiet, slow, and filled with memories.
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