The Colours of January

Blue Monday is the name given to the third Monday in January, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The idea is that the relaxation of the Christmas and New Year holidays has worn off, the credit card bills are due, and the Easter holidays (and warmer weather) are still a long way in the distance.

While I tend to think that it’s more a manufactured non-event than anything else, there’s no denying that the winter months can be difficult. Personally, I find the reduced daylight challenging and every autumn wonder if this will be the year I invest in a SAD light. Bad weather makes it easy to stay cooped up inside and healthy habits can go by the wayside in a desire to hibernate. Close proximity to others and the resulting strain on the immune system then allows cold viruses and other nasty illnesses to make the rounds.

In the UK this year, winter has been wet and mild, following on the heels of a wet and mild autumn. This means that the overwhelming colour of the past several months has been grey, grey, and more grey … interspersed with the occasional burst of blue that makes one want to emerge from hibernation and go exploring.

This past Blue Monday was one such day, and I was fortunate to be able to venture out to one of my favourite places, Westonbirt Arboretum. The arboretum is better known for its displays of autumn colour when the acers (Japanese maples) turn incredibly vivid shades of red, yellow, and orange. In the spring, the flowers of azalea and rhododendron emerge, and it is easy to see why 19th-century plant collectors undertook such arduous journeys to bring them back to the UK from the Himalayas. Cherry blossoms and bluebells add to the riot of bold, bright colours.

What happens in January?

On the surface, not much. The coloured leaves have long since faded and fallen, carpeting the woodland floor in shades of brown. Of course, this is nature’s recycling system in action, returning nutrients to the soil and preparing the trees for the year ahead. The trees themselves are bare branched and seemingly dead, but a closer examination shows leaf buds just beginning to form.

Without the distraction of the leaves, it is easier to pay attention to the details, like bark that looks like a contour map or the delicate structure of moss that reminded me of coral. The naked branches are also a great opportunity to see birds that would otherwise be hidden in the canopy; the highlight was catching sight two great spotted woodpeckers checking out nest holes to get a head start on prime avian real estate.

There has been a lot of research done over the past several decades about the power of nature and the outdoors to improve one’s wellbeing. The Japanese even have a term for this—shinrin-yoku or forest bathing—and studies all point to the positive mood-altering effect of being around trees. The current theory is that they produce chemicals called phytoncides that have an anti-microbial effect and boost the immune system. Regardless of the reason, the results tend to be unequivocal: going outside and being in greenery can help banish the blues all 365 days of the year.

If you are feeling a bit blue this winter:

These photos aren’t of Westonbirt, but here’s a peek at what Chippenham looks like when it isn’t quite so grey.

Read more about Westonbirt Arboretum:

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