I’m sitting in my studio, watching the snow fall gently and magically outside and thinking how very much I love the changing seasons. I fully acknowledge my privileged status in having a warm home from which to be able to do so, but thoughts along those lines belong in a different post. Today, I just want to revel in the joy of seasons. If you have lived all your life where the four seasons measure the year, it might be no more exciting to you than the hands of a clock or the pages of a calendar. But to me, it feels like a gift, and I think it would be the thing I missed the most if I were ever to move to a different climatic zone.
Let me explain.
I was born in Durban, situated in the subtropical, summer rainfall zone of South Africa. I spent the first 10 years of my life in this region, returning in my late teens for three years as a student. During this time, I ate paw-paws (papayas) and avocados picked from the trees in friends’ gardens. Litchis (lychees) and mangoes were readily available from the fruit and veg truck that pulled up in our street every week. People could often be seen munching sticks of sugar cane, dropped by passing trucks or trains. February was unbearably hot and humid, with temperatures well over 30C day and night at times. And when the rain fell on a hot summer day, the huge drops would hiss as they hit the hot tar. Winter temperatures ‘plummeted’ to 15C, which we found bone-rattlingly cold. Visitors from further north swam in the Indian Ocean throughout our (ahem) winter, while we watched in mystified bemusement from under our layers of clothing.
My mother moved us to East London when I was ten, and I lived in that climatic zone from 10-16 and again from 21-24. This is also a summer rainfall area, but the climate is temperate. This is where pineapples and aloes grow. And enterprising rural folks would pick, prepare and sell prickly pears by the bucket on the side of the road. The summers are hot (and I sprinted barefoot on a cinder track!). Winter temperatures in this region drop a lot lower than I had been used to. In fact, there would be snow on the nearby mountains in the winter. But central heating was non-existent. I learnt what it was to be cold – especially in the high ceiling dormitories of my boarding school.
By the time I moved to Cape Town at the age of 24 – all by myself, with no job waiting for me and just enough for a single month’s rent money to my name – I had never seen a proper autumn. The plant growth native the regions I had lived all my life up until that point was pretty much evergreen. I had seen countless pictures, of course. I suspect Vermont featured quite prominently, because, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to see Vermont in the Fall, and I can only think that pictures seen during childhood must be responsible for that. But it’s not the same. It’s really, really not.
The Western Cape is a winter rainfall zone, and is home to plants with a more clearly identifiable seasonal cycle: apples, pears, cherries, grapes and oak trees. Mainly brought over by settlers from Europe, I imagine. Hot summers, cold winters. Temperatures in winter could drop below zero. Snow on the mountains was not uncommon. There was a stretch of country road near our home with oak trees on either side. The branches met overhead to make a sort of corridor, and the changing seasons could be observed in that beautiful tunnel. It was my first introduction to ‘proper’ seasons, and it became my favourite stretch of road.
Then we moved to the UK, and I finally got to see four proper seasons in a year. I can’t begin to tell you how magical that is to me. How the earth seems to sleep and wake and sleep and wake. How it seems to be breathing in and out and in and out.
As each season arrives, I am convinced that it is my favourite time of year. The brave little snowdrops, crocuses and grape hyacinths that venture out in the cold to promise that spring is coming. The delicate greens. The deciduous blossoms that festoon trees along the roadsides and later drift on the wind like confetti. The banks and banks of daffodils. Then I decide I’m all yellowed out (I’m not good at strong yellows), and I start to long for other colours. They don’t disappoint. The colours deepen and strengthen and ripen. Flowers appear in passionate profusion in gardens – oh, how the English love their gardens! Wisteria and clematis transform the fronts of houses. The evenings are long and light and luxurious. The crops in the fields become greener and greener and then seem to start to bleach in the sun. The poppies appear. And berries. Oh berries! And then the leaves start to change and autumn takes my breath away with its oranges and reds and browns. Virginia creepers turn the sides of nondescript and even derelict buildings into places of eye-watering beauty. And the leaves fall in a never-ending cascade and crunch underfoot or rise up in the wake of passing cars or capricious breezes. And then they’re gone, and the branches are bare and picturesque and skeletal against the sky. The night comes early and the world is like a secret. The sky is grey, and it rains. And perhaps the snow will fall, and cover everything in a layer of beautifying white purity. And my breath appears in front of me as I walk. And then I start to see those brave little harbingers and it starts all over again.