Spring Slow

‘April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

The arrival of spring brings with it a certain exhaustion.

Days of sun followed by frost and snowfall; an hour vanishes as the clocks change. Gardens, fields and hedgerows are flecked with brilliant greens, yellows and purples; yet there’s a lingering weariness in the bones, tired from winter, not quite rested, newly unsettled by the changing season.

The contrast between all this fresh growth and life steadily progressing, one day at a time, can feel almost overwhelming.

I found myself sat in a kitchen chair, gazing at nothing, when there was a rumble of thunder and the sky broke open. Hail bounced off the road and rooftops. The kitchen skylight was pelted with pellets of ice, covering it in a layer of white. Then, as quickly as it had come, the storm passed over and the hail began to melt in the returning sunshine. Within a minute or two, only a scattering of glittering crystals remained. I watched them disappear.

When I went outside, I knew what I might find – the remnants of a rainbow, where the sun struck the dark clouds as they rolled eastwards. With all this spring busyness, an invitation to pause, look up, slow down.

The Air Sweet with Violets

This morning, I was walking along a wooded ridge when I spotted my first violets of the year, pale in the thin sun. As with the first sight of snowdrops, the discovery made me smile; spring flowers feel like a kept promise.

When I got home, I looked up the violet in The Language of Flowers; or, Flora Symbolica, by John Ingram, which lists the traditional meanings associated with plants.  I came across my copy, published in 1887, in a second-hand bookshop, and discovered that an earlier owner had pressed scores of dried flowers and leaves within its pages like fragile, antique bookmarks.

While there isn’t a pressed flower to mark it, the entry for the violet is much longer than for many of the others – somewhat ironic given that the violet is often associated with modesty, as well as faithfulness. Poets from Homer to Keats have celebrated it, and myths have been woven around it. According to The Language of Flowers, the Greek goddess Artemis transformed Ia, daughter of Midas, into a violet to conceal her from the amorous intentions of Apollo; while Jupiter caused the first sweet violets to appear as sustenance for poor, hapless Io, when she fled in the form of a white heifer from the wrath of Juno. So in this way the violet is linked to concealment, of beauty creeping beneath notice.

Yet with the arrival of spring, violets sometimes cluster in abundance on hedge banks and around the roots of trees in woodland; where one might be invisible, together they attract attention. They bloom all around the garden here – in paving cracks and flower pots, roots taking hold tenaciously; then, when the flowers are faded, their brittle pods scatter seeds far and wide. Small yet rich in colour and fragrance, they appear where it suits them; an unasked for gift.

 

Violet images (c) Sue Belfrage

On Vulnerability

Everything is stripped away. In the garden, robins and blackbirds perch on bare branches, while wrens hop in leaf litter among scrawny tangles of shrub. In the fields, the low sun picks out the horizon. There is a starkness to the land.

I find myself facing this new year cautiously. Little feels certain or secure, worries abound, things over which I can exercise little control. But with this vulnerability there has come a subtle shifting, of gratitude and appreciation, of letting go and acceptance, learning to look outwards rather than in.

Now the solstice has passed, the days are growing longer; light is returning. Primula are already brightening up the bank side by the wall. They might yet be covered by snow, but the seasons will carry on turning.

Growing from What’s Buried

The autumn rain has awoken a lingering ghost in the garden. A tuft of honey fungus has sprouted where an apple tree once stood ten years ago. The common name given to three closely related species – A. mellea, A. bulbosa and A. ostoyae, honey fungus is feared by gardeners for its ability to kill a wide range of trees and shrubs. Yet, while it doesn’t taste of honey, the young caps with their white gills are edible when well cooked.

At this time of year, fungi spring up as if by magic, here one moment and collapsed in puddles of decay the next. While walking in the woods today, I came across peeling caps of fly agaric, the poisonous, red-and-white toadstool of fairy tales. Their appearance was another reminder of what lies hidden, ready to surface when conditions are right.

Neither animal nor plant, mushrooms and toadstools are the fruiting parts of mycelium, the fibrous white bodies of fungi buried in moist soil and rotting wood. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has discovered how trees use underground networks of fungi to communicate with each other and send each other nutrients, likening the systems to our own neural and social networks.

The reappearance of fungi at this time of year also fits with the traditional celebrations of Samhain or Halloween, when the veil between worlds of the dead and the living is believed to become less opaque, and the past returns to haunt us. In my own dreams in recent weeks, buried memories have been resurfacing and I have found myself waking in anger at perceived wrongs.

So, what to do about returning ghosts? Folklore advises us to treat them respectfully – and then, perhaps, they might just help us, rather than harm us. Now is the season to honour the past.

Boundaries

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: somebody was standing on our garden wall and lopping off the branches from our hazel tree that overhung the wall slightly. And the tree-lopper hadn’t even bothered to knock on our door to talk to me about it first! I hesitated for a second or two – I rarely lose my temper – and then hurtled outside to ask them what they thought they were doing. A few heated words were exchanged and I spent the rest of the day smouldering with rage, until an apology and a bottle of wine helped set matters right.

Even at the time, I was taken aback by the strength of my anger and how it flared up seemingly out of nowhere. The overwhelming sense of affront and indignation – of how very dare they! And now, when I see our 11-week-old terrier puppy starting to yap at the passing strangers he glimpses through the gate, I’m struck again by how deeply rooted this territorial instinct of ours goes.

The theory proposed by neuroscientist Paul D MacLean in the 1960s argues that primitive drives such as this are processed by the reptilian brain, which comprises the basal ganglia and brain stem, and which also governs vital functions such as breathing and blood pressure as well as procedural memory. According to this model, like the fight-or-flight impulse, the territorial instinct is hardwired into us as human beings.

Which is quite a sobering thought.

At least, I guess, I didn’t rush outside and try to bite the offending tree-hacker (though if I’d had the teeth for it, I might have been tempted). If the territorial instinct comes as naturally to us as breathing, then perhaps it’s a question of how to adapt these kinds of instincts to the times we live in – and trying to make conscious decisions about when to suppress and, likewise, when to give in to our animal drives?

The new pup: butter wouldn’t melt…

Into the Gloaming

Nightfall turned me into a ghost. It had been so hot, I’d dressed in white and hadn’t thought to change into more suitable clothing for a late evening walk. Now my husband was a little unnerved as I appeared to be floating across the field towards him.

With the twilight came the dusk chorus, dark’s answer to the dawn; in the woods, owls hooted and screeched. There was rustling close by, perhaps deer or a badger stirring, as the night woke up.

I’d hoped the day’s heat would be enough to light up the hedgerows, and I wasn’t disappointed. As we started down the track, we spotted the first tiny flicker: a glow worm suspended from a blade of grass. Further along, we found another and another deep within the hedge, fragile greenish-white dots of light.

It’s no wonder folktales abound about faeries. Midsummer Eve, a painting by the English artist Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), captures and transforms the charm of these dabs of hedgerow brightness, which cast their own faint shadows.

Of course, in traditional tales, fairy folk or, as they are also known, the Sidhe (‘The Good People’), are much more ambiguous beings than the merry crowd depicted in Hughes’s picture, and best not crossed…

Although neither fairy folk nor indeed worms, glow worms are similarly best left undisturbed in their natural habitats. Their bioluminescence is mainly generated by the female beetle (Lampyris noctiluca) with the aim of attracting a mate. In England, the best time to see them is between June and August – and  those up the lane certainly seem to be more active on balmy nights.

All the same, while they might be firmly of this world, glow worms nevertheless seem to suggest that, on warm summer nights at least, a little magic might just be possible…

Bees in the Eaves

With dawn, the wall begins to wake and I lie listening to the sounds of stirring. Bumble bees have made a nest under the cottage eaves. In the quiet, you can hear them as they start to go about their working day.

These bees are less intrusive than our previous summer guests – a colony of hornets. While  the hornets were placid creatures, we soon learnt to shut the windows when dark fell. The insects were attracted to artificial light, and would parade outside the glass near lit lamps. Similarly, whenever I mowed the lawn, I was aware they might be disturbed by the vibrations, so kept my distance from the site of their nest above our back door. Although the hornets would occasionally emerge to take a look while I was pottering around outdoors, we left each other respectfully alone. All the same, I admit I was relieved when they moved on.

The buildings we live in are home to many more lives than our own, from solitary masonry bees who crawl into cracks between bricks and beetles under the floorboards, to summer’s swifts swooping over the roofs of rural towns. While instinct can incite us to treat some of these cohabitants as ‘pests’, the rewards to be had from controlling our impulses towards them are manifold – from pollinating gardens to caring for the planet.

The buzz of the bumble bees in the wall and the way we react to insects generally inspired me to write the following short piece; I hope you enjoy it:

 

Inside The Wall

 

The woman and the man watch the wall

A-creep with beetles, bees and ants.

When, at last, the returning queen

Docks with the insect grace of an airship,

The woman points and the man nods.

In white suit and alien helmet

He cautiously climbs a ladder,

Puffs poison into cracks

And seals the entrance with dead white:

No hornets here this year.

 

Next summer, she lets a waking queen

Out of an upstairs window,

Then stops to listen.

The bedroom wall humming like a blocked tap.

Outside she spots them circling:

Small bumblebees, black blobs of velvet,

Nesting under the eaves.

Their song is strangely comforting –

As if the stones were alive and

Nothing quite destroyed.

 

(© Sue Belfrage, 2018)

 

In other news, Bull Mill Arts near Warminster,  Wiltshire are hosting an open studio event on 7 to 8 July, where copies of the new paperback edition of my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, will be available as part of the event’s celebration of trees and nature.

Of Nightingales and Sparrowhawks

Yesterday, at sunset, I heard a nightingale sing. Its voice trilled, dipped and soared from the shadowy boughs of a sycamore tree. My companions and I stood enthralled, hardly daring to breathe lest the spell be broken. It seemed impossible that a small brown bird, hidden from view, could weave such sounds.

Nearby, another nightingale answered, and in the distance another, while all around blackbirds chattered goodnights and blackcaps joined in the melody. With the fading of the light, the birdsong ebbed away till at last even the nightingale fell silent, perhaps to strike up its song once we had gone.

In folklore and myth, the nightingale has long been linked to love and loss. Yet listening to the birds at dusk was soothing as balm –  a contrast to an avian encounter two weeks earlier.

Then I had been sat outside reading in the sun, when a starling and her fledglings started to screech alarm calls from the garden next door. A blackbird joined in, as did other birds, and suddenly a squadron of starlings swooped in overhead.

I peered over the wall and still could see nothing. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked; I didn’t expect a reply.

As if summoned, a sparrowhawk hopped out from a tangle of plants onto the lawn, wings dropped like a magician’s cape. If it had been mantling prey, it had abandoned this and now looked at me, head cocked, eye yellow, assessing; for all the world as outraged as a pantomime villain. In a blink, it took off and scimitared across the grass, then disappeared over a far wall.

While the garden birds settled back into their comings and goings, the surprise of the episode momentarily shook me. No wonder the ancients believed in augury – in divining the future from the behaviour of birds.

And no wonder, when we hear them sing, we’re touched by untamed magic.

 

*******

Just to confirm that the publication date for the paperback edition of Down the River and Up to the Trees is nearly here: 14 June!

 

Spring Fever

‘The city mouse lives in a house;

The garden mouse lives in a bower’

Christina Rossetti, ‘The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse’

 

A dash of brown caught my eye, up and over the garden wall. I watched and waited: a rodent of some description was on the move, building a nest among the masonry and scurrying back and forth to collect bedding. It was too far away to be sure and I’m no expert, but based on previous sightings, I’m guessing it was a vole.

During the winter, I found the entrances to one or two burrows in the lawn after snowmelt. (In fact, a neighbour became so fascinated by these holes that she suggested installing a camera to capture the occupants.) Now the weather’s warm enough for mowing and the grass is short again, perhaps the tunnels have been abandoned – after all, who wants to live rattled by lawnmowers – and the voles have opted for high-rise living instead?

Mouse or vole, I was impressed by the little creature’s industry as it dragged rose leaves the length of its body back to its hidey-hole. I was also secretly impressed by its lack of respect for boundaries: although it had made its home on my side of the stone wall, it kept nipping over into another neighbour’s garden to collect building materials. This particular neighbour has a very beautiful and ordered garden – and a notable aversion to rodents.

Try as we might, perhaps it’s impossible to prevent a little chaos creeping in; and maybe that’s no bad thing? The end of April and beginning of May are traditionally a time of celebration, of dancing and rebellion, fertility and Beltane fires, of waking energies and creativity on the loose…

When I inspected the wall where the beastie had built its nest, I found hazelnut shells crammed into the crevices, fragments of brown amidst grey. Evidence of life hidden in the heart of rock.

****

The paperback edition of Down to the River and Up to the Trees will be available this summer. Watch this space!

Time to Wake

The last couple of weeks have made me think about time and the ways in which we relate to it. It started with a trip to New York, the city that famously never sleeps (quite a contrast to rural Somerset). The day after I arrived, Daylight Saving Time began and the clocks went forward; having gained five hours by crossing the Atlantic, I now had to hand one of them straight back… so where did it go?

I arrived back in Britain a week later to unseasonal heavy snowfall, the emerging spring shrouded in grey and white. Having flown 3,465 miles in just over 6 hours, it took us another 4 hours to drive the remaining 120 miles home. The word ‘journey’ has its origins in the Old French journée, relating to the distance travelled in one day, and it struck me how the relationship between time and distance is far less predictable in our twenty-first century than it once used to be.

Then, a week after my return, the clocks went forward here too. By now everybody has just about adapted to the effect this has had on our internal body rhythms. In his fascinating book Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker explains the workings of the human body’s 24-hour clock or circadian rhythm (and, incidentally, provides a great defence of the lie-a-bed ways of owls like me who happen to live with chirpy larks). Regardless of where the hands might be pointing on a clock face, our bodies are naturally tuned to the wider environment and the rising and setting of the sun.

As well as possessing inner body clocks, it seems to me that we are each of us flesh-and-blood calendars or diaries, shaped by our individual relationship to time, how it feels to us and how we use it (and are used by it). The longer days are summer’s invitation to us to stay awake, get out and engage with the world.