2018 has brought me not one but two almanac treasures, each a joy to read and written nearly 200 years apart. The first is a beautifully illustrated hardback: The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide To 2018 by Lia Leendertz which I bought a couple of months ago along with copies for friends, but hid away so I wouldn’t be tempted to read it cover to cover before the new year commenced. The second is a book of John Clare’s poetry published in 1827: The Shepherd’s Calendar which follows the progression of the year for the rural labourers of Helpston.
This is another attractive hardback illustrated with evocative wood engravings by David Gentleman which capture the essence of the rural Northamptonshire landscape and its people at work and play. Like Emma Dibben’s illustrations in The Almanac, Gentleman’s engravings use simple lines to build up precise detail, whether it be the grain of a particular wood in The Shepherd’s Calendar or the characteristics of different sheep breeds in The Almanac.
The Almanac‘s entries for January include many facts to entice you out into the new year, even when skies are lowering and footpaths slippery with mud. I’m enjoying the supermoon tonight – where the full moon is particularly close to earth and at its brightest. With the times of the moon’s rising and setting noted for each day, I started my watching at 15.49 precisely and there it was, a huge orb perfectly framed by the silver birch tassels outside my study window.
One of the statistics for January which brings a glow to my heart is the fact that during the course of the month, day length increases by 1 hour and 12 minutes (in London). That’s nearly an extra hour and a quarter by the beginning of February to get out in the garden or walk along the footpaths. This is a fact which would have been of the utmost importance to John Clare’s community, relying as they did, on occupations out of doors. In ‘January: A Winter’s Day’, Clare conjures up the winter landscape:
While in the fields the lonly plough
Enjoys its frozen sabbath now
And horses too pass time away
In leisures hungry holiday
whilst, in the cottage:
The shepherd from his labour free
Dancing his children on his knee
Or toasting sloe boughs sputtering ripe
Or smoaking glad his puttering pipe
The Almanac describes ‘Wassailing’, a festivity which celebrates the cider crop, involving drinking ‘warm cider and apple juice with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, and a dash of brandy’, as a way to fill the indoor hours, or there is marmalade making – one of my favourite preserves made with Seville oranges, and a ‘date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding’ for indulgent winter suppers. Gardening jobs for January include pruning and planting fruit trees – jobs redolent of summer jams and autumn crumbles – although personally I’ll pass on the ‘Glut of the Month’ for January as one swede a year is too many; the thought of a glut of swedes brings me out in a cold sweat!
Finally, the section on ‘Nature’ documents the monthly treats in store in the garden and countryside throughout 2018: the bulbs appearing (I saw my first snowdrop last week), hazel flowers with their filigree winter beauty, and fieldfares and redwings (a frequent reason for the dash for binoculars in our house as the redwing flock lands on next door’s cotoneaster – or even, one year, a museum of waxwings.) Clare also celebrates winter birds as:
…flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush
although this comes in March, January being far more concerned with daily freezings:
The ickles from the cottage eaves
Which cold nights freakish labour leaves
set once more against the cosy cottage interior where:
…[the] keetle simmers merrily
And tinkling cups are set for tea
Both of these almanacs are objects to be used – with ribbon bookmarks for dipping in and out of sunrise times, recipe ingredients and monthly nature observations. I’d been looking forward to the publication of The Almanac for many months as I was involved, along with many other supporters, in crowdfunding the book through the publishers Unbound. The company has revived an old method of publishing whereby a network of supporters help fund the process, allowing authors to write the books which their audience wants and enabling them to get a much fairer percentage of revenue than they would from standard publishing.
It is particularly apt that The Almanac has been published in this way as it also revives an old tradition of annual volumes which, in Clare’s words, give us details of ‘frost and snow’ and ‘wisdom gossipd from the stars’. More than this, almanacs connect us to the particularities of each year, through the combinations of the weather, the phases of the sun and moon, natural cycles of plants and animals, and our traditional festivities. It is heartening that the support has been there to enable Lia Leendertz to create this delightful volume, hopefully the first of many new almanacs. Although our modern lives are rarely as intimately entwined with the natural calendar as those of John Clare and his contemporaries, knowledge about the natural world, its cycles and constant changes is no less vital today, perhaps even more so, and traditions like the almanac help us to keep this information alive.