Friday, 24 June 2016

Winter (and for our Northern friends, Summer) Solstice

It's the 23rd of June, and I'm a little late to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winds are buffeting the cottage and it feels bitterly cold; now is when we notice that we're higher than Melbourne, at 170m, in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges.

But it's the summer solstice for my Northern hemisphere friends and some have celebrated in style. This is why I like social media so much: to share gardening stories, flower pictures, bulb insights. I see, just a little, into the lives of people I've admired from afar (often geographically), authors, nurserymen, plantsmen, gardeners, plant hunters, seed collectors, designers, and that new breed, garden critics.

Jānis Rukšāns' name pops up; a plant collector, author and bulb grower from Latvia, well known, with surely the most charming traditional celebration of the longest day and shortest night. As he says: ` Last night was summer solstice. We celebrated it together with folk group at bonfire starting with last rays of sun up to sunrise this morning. All the time we were singing folk-songs from pagan times [greeting] sun, moon, garden crops etc. etc and dancing folk dances under music of old strings, bagpipes. It is named Janis day, although by nowadays calendar it will be only night between 23rd and 24th of June, but we celebrated it by nature calendar. In Latvia they still are holydays and there are [made] special beer and special cheese - named Janis cheese. On picture Janis cheese prepared for me by my wife Guna. Today returned to harvesting of bulbs.'

(Lynn (who I don't know) replies `in Sweden...Midsummer eve...herring, new potatoes and dancing around the "Maypole"...strawberries for dessert'.)

Australia - white Australia - seems, suddenly, very barren, although I realise this is purely my ignorance in this multicultural land. Last Saturday evening, not 5km away in Belgrave, there was a cheerful Lantern Festival; Vietnamese New Year is big in Keysborough and Richmond each year; and imagine if we celebrated local indigenous culture as well as we might.

Yes, we have seasonal chocolate eggs, hot-cross-buns (and my English mother made buttery saffron-infused Easter biscuits, rather brittle, but delicious - a cultural tradition), Christmas trees; but so much commercialism. And for this vegetarian, I dislike so much emphasis on ham and turkey! So I like this cheese, and I love the flowers, and the joie de vivre. I love the celebration `by nature calendar', not as directed by TV's commercials - or so it seems.

It's not cheap nostalgia (I'm all too aware of antibiotics, vaccinations and contraception (and thank you science, by the way, very much) which have transformed my life for the better) but a closer connection to the garden, farm, magic dirt and matters vegetable; and away from the shops, factories, cities and matters plastic, throw-away or monetary.

But it's the gardener in me that really responds to Janis' post; both celebrating a season but also decorating that cheese with simple - found not bought - flowers.
Back to nature. Earthiness maybe.
Or simplicity.
A chance to stop and be grateful for the garden, perhaps. Your patch of magic dirt.
And what you have.
(And yes, I am singing a Magic Dirt song in my head now. Of course!)

Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (
(Photograph by Jānis Rukšāns reused with permission.)

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