We're in the darkest time of the year, and if the gardener were an animal of the long June afterglows he would think -- he would see -- the light is getting worse and not better, and wonder what possible future could be worth waiting for.

We have one advantage, at least, over the average bug: We know that once we get past Christmas, and if we can only hold out till March, the blessed sun will be born again.

I love to look at my garden in the winter, not because it is beautiful (a garden can be at its best in winter, mine is not), but because it is so bare and so ruined and will be once more so soft and so sweet.

The tall yews that I look at now I never look at except in winter. Only gardeners, I guess, understand how it happens that yews and willows were thought good substitutes for palms. The yews are very much contained, very little given to expansive gestures, but when you see them in the winter, powdered with snow or bent down with sleet, they speak promises; and no gardener ever lived who was sorry he planted them.

The cold birds huddle in them at night and on those bleak, cold afternoons when the wind is sharp. Their green is almost black. Nothing is more gorgeous against the gray sky than the yew, unless it's the common holly.

I am glad to see the American holly is not so despised as formerly. It used to be the case that gardeners wanted only English or Chinese hollies, with their admirable glossy leaves. I think it may take sophistication, or at least age, to come round to the beauty of our wild holly with its dull mat leaves.

When I was a young man and poor and worked on a cotton farm one winter, I was proud to have a Jeep, my own car and my first. It didn't have a top; you sat there behind the wheel with the rain beating down on you. Getting back to the farm I always got cold. I used to stop, sometimes, in a holly grove that had once been around a house, I think, but the house was no longer there. You could drive in, and there were maybe a hundred old hollies.

Once inside, the grass was green, though the fields were withered and there weren't any birds. The wind could howl, but inside that grove it was quiet as a temple, and it was always soft in there, the air was, no matter what the weather was outside.

I fell in love then with the wild green holly. I think that to love it you have to give it some time to get to you. I think it helps to have an open Jeep and to stop at a holly grove and get out and let the magic work.

Sometimes I think that's the worst fault of America; we don't get out enough and sit still enough for the magic to work.

That the magic is there I know with all sureness. But if the volume of "music" is turned to Deafening and the speed of the car is pushed to Suicidal, you can't hear it or see it -- you could fairly say it doesn't exist.

Turn down the noise. Reduce the speed. Be like the somnolent bears, or those other animals that slow down and almost die in the cold season. Let it be the way it is.

The magic is there in its power. The holly and the ivy and the yew and the box and the nandina and the rest -- the photinias, cleyeras, certain azaleas, cunninghamias, red cedars, deodars, arums, cyclamen -- are in suspended life. They are not shooting out leaves or flowers, they are marking grave and stately time, but they are flamboyantly alive all the same and they show it. No gardener would want an endless summer. Many think so, but the trains back from Florida are filled with homesick gardeners who get to the point they would give every flash of scarlet in this world for the frozen ivy.

It's all right for fancy people to head for lush places, but a gardener should stay steady and stay home. Let it come, whatever comes.

The gardener walks always with the unseen crown of oak leaves, the invisible rush of roses, the tuberoses and the cestrums in his nostrils through all decay of the year.

Hold on to it, I say. It will come again. But far more than that, it has already been and the gardener has been through it and in it. It was him. So is this winter him, this sleeted ivy, which was sacred, all the same, to the god.

The daffodils are not worth anything, or not anything much, unless they succeed in their season to the depths of cold. And this insufferable season gains in dignity and in acceptance only because it falls between the sun and the sun.