I have a cricked neck. I got it squinting at a waxing moon. I blame Lia Leendertz and her new book, The Almanac.
As the title suggests, it spans a year, each month punctuated with festivals, events and everyday fascinations.
“I had the idea for it on holiday,” says Lia. “A week staying near the sea, with no work or distractions, made me realise how much I enjoyed the simplicity and enormity of the movement of the sun, moon and tides. Like many, I get a little book of tide times when I’m near the sea, as much to feel attached to those everyday simplicities as anything, and I wanted some of that connection in my life, in the city, in my garden.
“I began reading, researching, and discovered a whole wealth of feasts, festivals and other events that mark the year, punctuating the season.”
The result is a richly layered book of events, celebrations and everyday information that together create a beautiful, fascinating resource. At its core are eight festivals that mark particular moments in the solar calendar – the spring and autumn equinoxes, the summer and winter solstices, and the four points that fall between them. Each has agricultural, horticultural and historical significance, much of it diluted or lost over time. Interwoven are notable days such as Michaelmas and Yom HaShoah, offering dozens of invitations to pause, appreciate, reflect or celebrate. A wealth of practical information includes moon, sun and tidal timetables, gardening tasks, what to look out for in the natural world, along with what food is in season and recipes to make the best of it.
Lia says: “As a gardener, of course I am fairly in tune with the seasons, but with the busyness of life, it’s easy not to appreciate the moment you’re in, and to yearn for summer rather than revelling in the Aprilness of spring, or the pleasure November brings.
“Writing The Almanac has changed that, and I hope it will too for those who read and use it.”
November illustrates the pleasure of The Almanac perfectly. I now know when and where to look for constellations, meteor showers, when to garden in tune with each phase of the moon, about planting tulips, that pears, sweet chestnuts, partridge, clams and borlottis are in season, and which bird species are likely to be appearing in my garden - and much more besides.
Among all the practical information, there are 11 days of importance to enjoy, including the festival of Samhain, which falls across October 31 and November 1, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
It has much in common with other festivals and markers across the planet at this time – such as Mexican Day of the Dead, Hallowe’en and All Souls Day (widely marked in France by the taking of chrysanthemums to graves) – that celebrate the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead, what has been and what is to come. It is a celebration that’s somehow both profound and mundane, rooted as it is in taking stock, in being grateful and appreciative of what has been and planning ahead. I suggest to Lia that there’s more than a hint of darkness in the festivals of this time of year.
“It is the time cattle would have been brought in from pastures, and livestock slaughtered – it’s very much about the death of the old year and the beginning of the next. It was considered a magical ‘in-between’ moment.
“Feasts were held during which the souls of dead relatives were set a place and invited to join, and children went from house to house ‘souling’, singing and praying for the dead and receiving ‘soul cakes’ – a precursor to trick-or-treating.
“You don’t have to be a pagan to observe these old festivals and I’m not about to slaughter a cow in my garden, but knowing that this time – when I’m taking stock in the garden, planning for next year, going trick-or-treating with the kids – is when others were doing similarly, in different times and situations, makes a beautiful connectedness with other cultures and times past, deepens the pleasure I have from gardening and life, and gives me something I realised I was missing.”
Samhain also has connections with apples, which is very much what I’m dealing with in my garden. Lia says: “They were seen as the fruit of the Other World, of magic and fortune telling. Traditionally, a woman would peel an apple in one go and cast the peel over her shoulder on Samhain Eve, with the shape the peeling made indicating the first initial of the man she would marry.
“Apple bobbing stems from the same time and traditionally whoever did it well was in for a fine year to follow. So many of these traditions have a ghost in our current life, but have lost some of the meaning or at least an awareness of where they came from. In any event, this is very much the time for feasting on apples, turning the excess into cider and juice, but also for planning and planting a new tree or orchard.”
The Almanac is about making it easy to take a moment to celebrate and appreciate frequently, to embed your gardening (and life) a little more in the wider cycles of life, past and present.
The book offers nudges, reminders, reasons and excuses to pause and to revel. It’s full of stories, information and recipes that root the reader – especially the gardener – in the now. The Almanac isn’t meant to get you gardening more, but rather to enrich the experience. In the single month I’ve had my hands on it, the book has quietly “worked”.
I’ve looked to the sky more often, noticed the departure and arrival of wildlife in my garden, and I’ve been more aware of the sun and moon’s rise and fall. I’ve appreciated a little more keenly what October has to offer, and how these events and phases affect the garden and what I do in it now.
It also has me looking forward: as Lia writes, November is the month “in which we fight the encroaching dark with light… a month for finding warmth, and light, wherever you can”. It brings fireworks, trees that colour with “fiery flame” and celebrations, some looking forwards, others back: there’s Remembrance Sunday, Guy Fawkes Night and Stir Up Sunday among them.
Lia concludes: “I wanted to write a book that would provide a beautiful resource, for the whole year, whether you’re in the mood to garden, cook, stare at the sea or daydream from the bath”. She has certainly done that.
The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2018 by Lia Leendertz (Unbound, £9.99) is out now. To order your copy for £7.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk