Some are tiny, some are huge. Some are quick and some are slow, but they each carry within them all the information they need to make everything from an oak tree to a tiny daisy.
Seeds are germinating all around us in the earth, but the ones on my window sill are the most keenly awaited in my world and I stare at the eye level miracle with obsessive greed.
It snowed this morning, but my blue peas are germinating nonetheless. I am growing them because apparently they are the same species as were found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. The flower is bright blue and I have no idea if the pea is even edible. The ancient Egyptians buried their rulers with gold, but they also ensured that they included seeds : the real wealth of life.
The root is pushing down into the soil as we speak and the shoot has already emerged, with the shape of the leaves to come stamped upon the stem.
As a title, spring snow flake could be describing a late weather event , but after a few recent flurries of snow I am pleased to say it actually describes a flower!
Spring snow flake is like a large snow drop with jaunty pointed petals that flowers in my local forest in the very early spring. As March and spring are now here and I delightedly detached the February page from my calendar yesterday, I thought it was time to see if they had started flowering.
After a long walk through the bare woods it was a great pleasure to see a sweep of their white flowers in the grass by the stream
Leucojum vernum is native to central and southern Europe from Belgium to the Ukraine. It is naturalised in some places in Britain and even the US, as it make a lovely garden bulb in cooler shady spots.
My neighbours tell me it is called the snow piercer in France, as it’s sharp leaves often have to come up through the snow.
Today was snow free. There were black wood peckers in the forest and yellow hammers in the hedge rows were singing “ a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeese!”.
There has been sunshine and there have been cold winds. It’s still only February, but the promise of spring is there in the air.
The garden is still mud brown and I long for the colour and exuberance of flowers.
So, I stare at the orchid flowering on my kitchen table. It came from the co-op on special offer, but it was designed for some where far more lush and exotic than my plastic covered winter table.
The nectar lines are to tempt in the insects that the orchid will reward with nectar and take payment in the form of pollen transported on the insects’ backs. All that irresistible beauty is to ensure that the orchid will cross pollinate and seeds will form.
No chance of that in this kitchen!
However on the garden table outside, something more promising is taking place.
Here a few violas from the garden centre have survived the snow and perked up in the sunshine. They are very close to their wild heartsease pansies and have not been so over bred so that no bee can use them.
A huge Queen bumble bee has recognised the honey guide makings on the flower and she is in! This is a scarce time for flowers for us all, but she has emerged from her winter dormancy to find what ever she can to fuel her self up in order to found her new dynasty in the garden.
I think she is a bombus terrestris Queen and she will found her colony underground, probably in an abandoned mouse hole.
I hope she found enough food in these few early flowers on my patio table to hatch her new season of pollinators for the flowers that we all long to see.
I’ve just seen my first butterfly of the year in the garden. It was a lovely yellow male brimstone ( the females are green) and its similarity to the colour of butter makes it the original butterfly in the English language!
It is commonly called a Brimstone in English, where it’s yellow colour is associated with sulphur. “ Hell fire and brimstone” apparently comes from the sulphuric smell left after a divine lighting strike has cut down a sinner. The French name Citron is much milder by comparison and lemon yellow is more appealing than the smell of hell fire!
The Brimstone butterfly is remarkably long lived. It survives for up to a year and it hibernates for seven months of winter in woodland, where it hangs up with its wings folded inconspicuously like an old leaf.
The males wake up much earlier than the females and she waits until the food plant that her offspring will need is in leaf.
Both genders feed on flower nectar and especially like scabious flowers. Their caterpillar food plant is alder buckthorn, which likes wet places and brimstone females move to wet lands to lay their eggs. Butterflies which hatch from these caterpillars sleep the winter away in woodlands, to which they migrate in the cold times and emerge to mate and start the cycle all over again in the spring
Today the butter yellow flash of wings was a promise of spring for me. For the butterfly, it was proof of a winter safely weathered and an invitation to butterfly love!
When the snow melts, the countryside looks flattened . There are tide marks of green along the wet ploughed brown shine of fields and not much else. But along the little stream between the rocks, the moss is in its element.
In the deep valley the moss is plump and luminously green. It covers the rocks and the base of the trees and where water drips down the face of the gully, it makes silent soft waterfalls of damp vegetation. In February, when nothing much else is growing, I am drawn to this wonderful moss, to the few ferns that cling amongst it and to the sound that is swallowed by the myriad fronds.
The Easter Island face of the rock looks down on this miraculous pulse of green in such a dead month and seems to be protecting it . Spring will come and the green will cover the little valley and the fields and the gardens. Until then it waits in this quiet waterfall of thick, thick moss.
In the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” the page following his master, steps into his masters’ footsteps . I was thinking of this when admiring badger paw prints in the fresh snow on a cold morning .
The print seemed very large and I marveled that badgers seemed much bigger than I remembered them. I realised eventually that the largest prints were doubles, made as the badger stepped into his own footprint in the snow. I wondered if , like the struggling pageboy in the carol, he kept his feet warm in this way, though I doubt if he obtained the same miraculous heat from the foot print that saved the freezing page ! I doubt the badger was following the saintly King through the snow either, but I hummed the tune nonetheless to warm myself as we walked back across the winter landscape.
The carol, as we know it, was written by John Mason Neale . It is based on a poem and uses a very old melody. King Wenceslas, the first Christian king of Bohemia was murdered by his pagan brother. The King was out in the snow taking food and fire wood to a poor man on a freezing winter night followed by his faithful page who stepped in the King’s miraculous warm footprints.
Good King Wenceslas
Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling, Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?” “Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain; Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither: Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.” Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together; Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger; Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.” “Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed. Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
The environmental future can seem bleak: global warming can seem inevitably destructive, but we can turn things around. Banning aerosols worked . Read this good news and hope we can all do the same for CO2 emissions.
If we are lucky enough to have a garden, then we are custodians of a tiny slice of the earth and we have control over it ( “up to a point Lord Copper”, as Evelyn Waugh’s character would say.)
The garden has a flat surface, that is the figure on the deeds of the house but how we cover up that space is up to us.
The most negative thing we can do for wildlife is cover it in tarmac or concrete. Black tarmac absorbs heat and actually contributes to global warming.
We can cover it in stones quarried from hundreds of miles away and then drench it in herbicide to stop any passing seed germinating.
We could lay plastic turf over it, or lay wooden boards over it made from dead trees and put plastic furniture on it and heaters and barbecues to burn meat, or reconstituted vegan burgers, surrounded by solar lights from China that stop bats and moths from ever taking wing, all in the name of being in the great outdoors.
All of these options involve buying stuff and making the planet a worse place for wildlife and for us all.
Or we could think in three dimensions. We could think not just of the flat ground we own, but of the whole cubic space above it and how we could maximise that for as many different species as possible.
The simplest thing to start with, is to grow tall plants . Tall plants make use of the sky space to provide food for bees and butterflies, moths and birds. The tallest plants are trees and if you have space to grow real trees then you can make the biggest difference possible to wildlife. Low growing plants are much better than concrete, plastic or stones, but they only make a few inches of life. Tall flowers are beautiful hollyhocks, delphiniums, dahlias foxgloves; what ever flourishes in your climate and soil. Flowering shrubs are wonderful: lavender, lilac, rosemary again what ever the bees like and will tolerate your climate. If bees don’t come to it and you need pesticides to keep it happy, then ditch it. You are doing more harm than good by growing it in the wrong climate. There are always better things you could grow!
Think of the borders of your garden. Could they be alive? Could you have real hedge? Could it have a real mixture of local shrubs that provide berries and nuts in the autumn for birds or evergreen shelter in the winter? If you have a chain link fence, could you grow flowers up that fence? Is there a gap in the fence for hedgehogs or other wildlife to pass between gardens?
Rather than a plastic awning or sunshade, why not sit in the shade of a tree? It is far cooler and more lovely! Plant one now for your future or even that of your children!
A garden can go up as well as down. I decided a pond dug down into my little garden will make a space for frogs and dragonflies and maybe newts and damselflies too and this is my project for the spring.
The earth isn’t flat . Our gardens don’t need to be flat either and by thinking of filling every millimetre of the land we own and the space above it with life will make such a difference to the fragile planet.
When the thaw comes there is wonderful strange music.
First a single drip from the snow on the bird table lands soft in the thick white and the sound is absorbed . Then the ice on the roof starts to move. It clatters down the slates like a dislodged tile. Then a great slab of snow skitters down and lands with a terrifying crash on the back step, nearly burying the cat.
The melt water from a corrugated roof falls in marvellous intervals into the gutter, a xylophone of notes . A spout of quickly thawing snow shoots down in a noisy spear of liberated sound. Now a gamelan of melting snow plays out and the leaves that hung on to the trees through the storm, hiss down to the slushy snow below.
The sun is abruptly covered by a cloud. The temperature falls just a little, the drip slows, stutters and stops. It is oddly quiet again. The music is over until the next sun up.
Tomorrow is the day after the winter solstice. The day will be imperceptibly longer than today.
There will be more time to listen to the wonderful, weird music of thaw!
The seasons have been used as metaphor for human life since the first baby was born in springtime.
It is less obvious that places themselves seem to age with the season’s progression.
Winter is the last season, it is old age and the world seems dead, but of course it is not and nature is just waiting for the spring : for the cycle of life to renew and for life to return.
In spring everything can seem blushingly bare, awkward and gangly like an adolescent; in summer it is noisy and confident; in autumn it is blowsy, brash and colour splashed, but in winter, in real winter, when the snow falls, the street and the field and the very sky seem to belong to another century all together.
The traffic stops, the streets empty, the sky is heavy with feathers floating down.
People move only when they have to and the birds pushing through the white air make the sound of wings . The white roofs are Bruegel and the woodsmoke is from twisted chimneys.
The world seems ancient when it snows. It seems infolded and safe.
In a white winter, the creases are smoothed out and a wise unblemished face is turned up to a beautiful blank sky.
It has taken a long time to turn cold here and real frosts have only just begun.
My pretty little acer tree has been flaming for weeks in the drizzle, but the real winter has extinguished it at last. I picked up the final fallen leaf from the ground like a still glowing ember.
The dahlias and gladioli are safely dug up and stored in the basement and the scented geraniums are bulging on the spare room window sill.
When cleaning between the pots, I spotted some tell tale black frass on the window sill. The tiny black spheres were the frass of a caterpillar that has smuggled its way into the warm of the house.
We managed to find it, well camouflaged amongst the munched green leaves and I am hoping it may grow into a hawk moth caterpillar of some description. Hawk moths caterpillars have wonderful markings and spikes on their tails. The adult moth could be a thing of astonishing beauty: a humming bird, eyed, or even an elephant’s head hawk moth; but dreams of gorgeously patterned moth wings are still months away.
Until then I have to wait with the lucky caterpillar, in the warm back room, for the seasons to slowly change.
Listen to the breathing. Is it calm? Or is there a bit of a gasp or a snatch in there?
What about the walk? Watch the walk. In control, is it? The feet roll from heel to toe do they?
What next? How about the eyes? Look closely at the eyes. Eyes tell you a lot. The skin round the eyes. Is it tight? More on one side than the other? And is that a frown? Is it always there or can it smooth out?
This is you. You’re looking at you.
Now what comes next is harder. See if you can notice any part of you that’s tight, taut, a part you that you’re holding tighter and tauter than it should be and you don’t know why: a shoulder maybe one side of your neck? Is there any way that can be looser?
This is you You’re looking at you.
Now this is difficult. We’re going in. What about sleep? Honestly. Do you sleep through the night? Or do you lie awake in the middle of the night and you don’t know why? What do you think about? Does the day before come in and sit there keeping you awake? Does tomorrow come in and sit there keeping you awake? Have you ever talked to someone about what keeps you awake? You could, you know. Sometimes, talking about it scares off the things that keep you awake.
This is you You’re looking at you.
Are there things you could do which would look after you? Places you could go People you could see Shows you could watch Things you could do. What are they? Shut your eyes. Imagine you’re doing them. Imagine you’re doing them. Imagine you’re doing them.
Have you ever tried ways of expressing what you feel? Drawing? Writing? Movement? What would you draw? What would you write? How would you move? Imagine you’re doing them. Imagine you’re doing them. Imagine you’re doing them.
And you know why I’m asking you to ask yourself all these questions don’t you? It’s for that old, old reason: if you don’t look after you you can’t look after others.
This is you. You’re looking at you.
This poem was written by Micheal Rosen, a renowned author who nearly died of Covid in England. He was looked after, as he struggled for life, by NHS nurses and he became acutely aware of the toll the pandemic took on those nurses.
This is such a glancing, compassionate and painful poem and I think it speaks to all the nurses everywhere who kept so many people alive in such awful times that we all just want to forget.
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