Winter Solstice in the Green Room

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

Recently, I spoke with a dear friend who lives up north about a recurring phenomenon that I experience every winter. Regardless of photos, a decent memory, and the fact that I live in the Deep South: I forget the color green.

My yard, once bathed in its hue, fades with the sun—and so does the image of summer dancing across clover, chickweed and mint. They have all entered the hypothetical Green Room, a space for recovery and preparation, and left me to mourn the absence of their color. I have planted rosemary, left our cedars to swell and reach dangerous heights over dog kennels and chicken runs, in an attempt to hold onto green. We have planted a Yule tree and decorate it every year in cranberry and popcorn. And still, green slips and slides away with every killing frost. Of course, it must go to sleep. That verdant life force must rejuvenate, giving stalks and leaves back unto the earth, back unto the ancestors of their kind. 

It’s brave, really.

And until now, I didn’t understand that I’ve refused to enter my own Green Room. Rather, I tend to wail and stomp, refusing to leave the stage that has given me so much joy. Not much has changed in fifty-four years. As a baby, my grandmother would struggle to comfort me when the sun began to lower in the sky. Every evening, without fail, I would begin to wail the moment it began and remain inconsolable until darkness had taken over the house. Even a small lamp could delay my concession to sleep—and still, I cannot sleep in the light. The dimming of the day has always grieved me, deep in my bones. And then, there’s winter.

I hear tell that, up north, there are white crystals that bless the ground and grace the trees in halos. I’ve seen pictures.  Perhaps a handful of times, I’ve even seen it in my own Alabama yard—for an hour or three. It’s mystical, and I find myself thinking: That must be what protects their ground, their seeds, the little trees. Blankets from Cailleach, the Celtic Matron of Winter, just before she rides for firewood and determines the fate of spring. I also hear tell that y’all suffer ice, late plantings, and the need for snow tires—perhaps a fair trade off for those picturesque scenes outside your door? We, on the other hand, only have a handful of deep freezes. These are just enough to keep the seeds from our planting hand, and for me, the color green from my memory.

Before that first freeze, you will find me worrying over a pepper plant. I stand there, weighing whom I might save in my hothouse, apologizing to those I cannot, panicked at their ignorance of what is to come within hours. Here in my zone, we can slip from 70 to 30 degrees overnight; the plants never see it coming. There is rarely that slow, merciful ride of crunchy leaves, sweaters, and fires. The transition from fall, if you could call it such, to winter is raw and brutal and sudden.

Bees and treefrogs buzz, and in a moment, go silent. Though our winters are bearable, they are rude in their arrival, often taking a southern garden completely by surprise. We have no time to put on pants, nor lay out the appetizers. Our winters are insolent, slipping in and out of the party, stomping on the flowerbeds in their careless reentry and rarely bringing the wine. And then, finally: Winter descends, as if tired by the mayhem, and flops upon our farms for a spell.

It is only then that we beg winter to stay, praying for her to kill the mosquito larvae, sharpen our fruit trees, and please, oh please: Let that magical powder fall from the sky. Rarely are those prayers answered. It is somewhere in this push and pull of winter that farmers like me forget to relish in the reprieve. We forget to enter the Green Room, that tranquil space that steadies us for the next act. Our relationship with winter is complicated—as most rendezvouses with death can be.

Ah, but it does not escape me that the Winter Solstice tips that balance, year after year, bringing back the light a minute at a time. She leans into green, whispering futures of sprouts and sustenance, even as the grass above them freezes still. She forces souls into their homes to rest, to fires, to food grown in another time. Her winds blow us back to our families, our shelters, and our memories. I cannot blame her for withholding green, for it is all she can hold for her own. It is, in fact, her grandest performance—and we all forget to applaud as she lets it fall and swath our land…and then, concedes the stage.

Some of us take a bit longer for that kind of grace. I found the door today, the one that leads to my own Green Room. It turns out: I had built it, myself. Its walls are lined with pickled peppers and pears, tomato sauce, and beans. There are jars of dried popcorn, hibiscus for tea, and dried eggplant. Luffa sponges hang over chutneys, awaiting their grand opus at Yule. In the corner, there’s a bookshelf that holds my grandmother’s recipe books, gardening journals, and handmade box emblazoned with the word “SEED.” My childhood afghan is slung upon my great-grandmother’s rocking chair, the one with the cracked leather seat.  

It is a kind space, a gathering of all that I am, the work that I’ve done. The next act is far away, somewhere on the other side of the world, and I need not fret. Rather, I gather my pen and journal, shimmy under a blanket, and let the sun set upon me. There are ghosts here of harvests past, present and future. And I am not afraid.

I think I’ll paint this room green.

photo credit: Hector J. Rivas, Unsplash