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Tu b’Shvat and “wintering”

Written by Miriam Lorie

Tu b'shvat and Wintering

Tu b’Shvat is coming! In the depths of the British winter it always feels counter-intuitive to celebrate trees and fruits. And in a stormy week, even more so. The exotic fruits we’re able to enjoy thanks to greenhouses and importing feel so out of sync with the local natural world around us. 

Looking around in this the cold, wet, windy period, it feels like all is hibernating and shut down, but in fact, this is when on the inside, nature is gearing up for the Spring and Summer. 

Rashi says that Tu b’Shvat is the birthday for trees because it’s the time when the water table is full enough that sap begins to rise in the trees from the ground. While his biology might not be contemporary, Rashi himself was a vintner of grapes, and knew the odd thing about horticulture. 

A few years ago, the author Katherine May published a book called Wintering that has changed the way I think about both seasonal winter and the “winters” in our own lives. Here’s an excerpt:

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential…
Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.
Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.
Yet it’s also inevitable. We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us… 
… Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.”

So it seems that wintering is an important part of the ebb and flow of human life, as well as of the seasons, and it is to be accepted rather than resisted. Sometimes we might even self-enforce a wintering, such as when the author pulls her son out of the school where he was experiencing anxiety, and allows him a period of homeschooling until he is ready to join a big bustling school again. Winter allows us to recuperate, turn inwards and build our stores for what is to come. 

So Tu b’Shvat, as counter-intuitive as it seems, allows us a glimpse at what all this cold, rain and wind is for. Inside, as Rashi says, the sap is rising! Our crops are turning inwards and building stores for what is to come. 

The exotic fruits we’re lucky enough to get hold of these days, much as they aren’t always seasonal and local, can help with visualising the end product of all this wintering. They give us hope that even here in the chilly, windy UK, fruit is coming. 

And maybe we should take Katherine May’s advice and follow the nature around us, doing those unfashionable and radical things -

“slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting”

and allowing a winter time to give us the reserves we’ll need in a few months time, to burst into something new.  

Wishing everyone a happy and fruitful - but also slow and restful - Tu b’Shvat

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