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

The Edge of Spring

Drenched fields hold pools of sky and, in the surrounding farms, the cattle are restless in their byres. There is a tension in the air. One day the sun is out; the next it vanishes behind banks of cloud. Yet the birds are beginning to sing of spring, with the great tit’s two-syllable ‘It’s com-ing, com-ing, com-ing’; and pairs of jackdaws have started to make their nests in the outbuildings.

This past week, where others catch colds, I’ve found myself infected by anxiety. A couple of delayed projects meant my work temporarily dried up. Such are the joys of life as a freelancer: one day you’re drowning and the next you find yourself in a desert. Rather than stay fretting at my desk – or doing the sensible thing and phoning around for jobs – I went in search of water.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I walked for hours along the footpaths that crisscross the River Stour in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, a landscape immortalised in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s flat and lush pastureland. The farms are large and ancient, and the river ribbons its way between them.

Along the way, I saw herons and egrets, skirted an ox-bow lake and was befriended at one point by a perky white terrier (whose owner I had to phone to come and fetch her, so keen was she on accompanying me across the fields).

And it struck me how hard it is to feel like a failure when you are walking: when you are simply moving one step at a time across the land and engaging with what you see, rather than worrying about what you should be doing or what you think you ought to have achieved. Equipped only with a map and a sense of direction, it can be easy at times to lose sight of the way markers – especially when you are trying to tiptoe your way round farmyards – yet somehow you always find the right track, even if it’s not the one you intended.

Light

When I was a child, living in the south of Sweden, my family learned to live with the dark – with mornings slow and red to rise, hours settled in the silence of snow, and days over before they seemed to begin. One of the local traditions that we embraced was the lighting of a thin, white Advent candle, marked with the days of December. I remember watching the date burn down almost greedily, the flame twinned with its reflection in the black of the window.

Those flickering slivers of light, how important they are, as we brace ourselves against the cold. At this time of year, light becomes infused with a particular religiousness. It becomes an essential, a tilting lantern on a small boat rocked by the passing of the seasons. How can it come as any surprise that light is such a powerful symbol?

In love with light, we ward off the threat of overwhelm, of being swallowed by immensity. In our good cheer, with hearths lit and sparkling strings of fairy lights strung around our homes, we acknowledge, in a way, how fragile we are.

Such little sparks. Beautiful against the vastness of the dark.

Get Lost

Today, I did something unusual. At least, it’s pretty unusual in this day and age: I got lost.

I’d gone for a walk in the woods with our elderly lurcher-lab cross. Both she and I know these woods fairly well; they once formed part of the ancient Selwood forest and cover over 650 hectares, with trails and footpaths. A sign said there was an event ahead (probably mountain biking or horse riding), so I decided to turn down an unfamiliar track.

It was rutted but manageable at first, and soft under the dog’s paws. However, some time later, having carried the dog over tangles of bramble and rotting logs, it dawned on me that the track had in fact petered out a while ago. Here I was, lost, with a half-blind, elderly diabetic dog for company.

There was a drop of rain, then another. My hands tingled.

For me, tingling in the hands is a sign of adrenaline – like the feeling you get after a near miss in traffic. Standing there, knowing I was lost, felt odd both physically and mentally. Besides the unease, I was suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings.

I could, of course, pull out my phone and get my bearings (if there was a signal, which there often isn’t in this part of the world). Now, though, checking my phone felt like cheating.

I caught a glimpse of bright green through the trees, and thought I recognised a field where there’s a path nearby; but it was too far away to reach through thick undergrowth, down a steep slope. The only sensible thing to do was to turn round and pick our way along the route we came, so back we went – me carrying the dog when the going got tricky, she gamely following where she could. At a couple of points I had to decide which ‘path’ to follow, and was hugely relieved to recognise signs – a tree stump, a spill of puddle, a fallen branch – showing we were on the right track.

The experience of being lost made me think about all those stories in fairy tales, folklore and literature of straying off the path – from ‘Hansel and Gretel’, William Blake’s ‘Little Boy Lost’, to fantasy and horror. More than this, I made me realise how hard it is to get truly lost today, what with all our modern gadgetry.

Yet, without getting too Zen koan about it, if you never allow yourself to get a little bit lost at times, then how will you ever know what it feels like to be found?

For the Love of Pets

Perhaps one of the most delightfully eccentric works in the English language, Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart (1722–1771) pays tribute to the poet’s ‘Cat Jeoffrey’:

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.

For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.

For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick

For he can swim for life.

For he can creep.

 

Jeoffrey was clearly a very special cat indeed, and Christopher Smart’s tribute to him shows the place he held in the poet’s affections. While Smart was in fact locked up in a lunatic asylum for some of the time during which he wrote Jubilate Agno, I think many of us can probably empathise with this particular form of madness: if you have a pet in your life, the chances are you love that animal to distraction.

Which means it is heart-breaking when anything happens to them.

A couple of weeks ago, my other half and I discovered that our beloved cat Bramble had been killed by a train. It came as a huge shock – we also have an aged lurcher-lab cross who has various health issues, and have been preparing ourselves for what lies ahead for her; so the loss of Mr B – a characterful cat in his prime – came like a bolt from the blue. Terrible as it sounds, I’ve been to a few funerals in recent months, and losing my little cat has affected me as much as any of them.

It also made me think that, for all that cats are maligned for the damage they undoubtedly can do to wildlife, nothing really compares to the destruction that humankind can commit pretty much absentmindedly while going about our business on this planet.

I suppose all we can do is to carry on doing our bit individually and collectively, however small, loving and caring for the domestic animals in our lives as best we can – as well as the animals on the fringes, visiting our gardens, hiding in the woods, brightening our world.