Monday, 14 April 2014

Beauty and the Beast

This year, spring has been deliciously long and leisurely. With primroses (prima rosa = ‘first flower’) appearing at the beginning of the year, and since then we’ve been treated to a slow, steady procession of bursting buds, unfolding wings, and a gently swelling singing. Many species - blossom, butterfly and bird - I’ve spotted or heard far earlier than usual; each sign of incipient spring eliciting individual eureka moments. But one old flowery friend has delayed its annual anniversary this year.

Normally I expect the white showering of blackthorn flowers at the very beginning of spring; its bright white blossom leaving conspicuous, wedding-gown trains along hills, hedges and woodland edges. Yet only now, in the midst of April, are the blackthorn flowers finally in full flush, their snowy petals peculiar amongst the precocious warming, and greening, of spring. It’s as if, like me, the blackthorn was expecting a late, last flurry from Old Man Winter, but then realising it wasn’t coming has been thrown into a tardy, but tremendous, floristic display. “Beware a blackthorn winter…” old folks used to say: remarking on the tendency for a late cold snap in March when the blackthorn usually blooms. Instead, this year, we murmur amongst ourselves in appreciative awe: “Behold a blackthorn spring!” 

Although beautiful, to me the chaste, ivory-white flowers, without any softening tinge of creaminess, always seem a little cold and austere - like the formality of a church wedding. A vivid contrast to its lusty sister, hawthorn, the May-tree, with all its frothing fertility and bawdy associations of fumbling in the foliage. And there’s undoubtedly a beast as well as beauty about blackthorn. The innocent flowers contrast starkly with dark, bare branches, in turn bearing long, vicious spines: quick to scratch and slow to heal. It’s a difficult and painful plant - as anyone who’s ever had to prune its dense, tangled growth or tried to squeeze through a blackthorn hedge can attest; long loved by landowners, and cursed by many a poacher. Such symbolism is deeply culturally ingrained, apparently: an old word for blackthorn is ‘straif’ – relating to our modern words struggle and strife. 

Beautiful and painful: perhaps blackthorn holds a rich metaphor for the parameters of life...

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

On the verges of spring…

A bike ride. From vacant village streets to sunken lanes and hidden tracks, further on and deeper in, meandering past sleepy hamlets and isolated farms to Shave Cross, where Medieval monks once quaffed whilst they were coiffed. Then home, straight and fast, along the descending ridgeway...

And all along the way I was accompanied by a floral fringe; wild flowers unfolding on the verge of time and space. On the steeper banks are pale-faced primroses, still as fresh and faerie-like as the when they first appeared in January; the petals light and lemony - almost luminous against the darkling undergrowth. Traditionally, it was considered offensive to offer a friend or neighbour a posy with less than thirteen primrose flowers; but I can never bear to pick any – for fear of offending the faeries. Sharing the same colour theme, but at the opposite end of the yellow spectrum, is the greater glow of lesser celandines, like myriad gold coins scattered along the wayside. The travelling merchant must have been very rich, and careless, who passed this way this year… And a small patch of sweet white violets, soft and velveteen, demurely off-white - shrinking violets - and only ever smelt once, they say.

Amongst these familiar companions of spring, some new faces, or rather old friends suddenly seen again on their variable anniversary of bud-burst. Starry white stitchwort, with its sharp bright petals like the needles of Vestal virgins sewing together the various shapes and shades of green in the brimming verge vegetation. And cuckoo flower, a little precocious perhaps after this mild (wild) winter, whose first appearance once concurred with the first evocative calls of the cuckoo. It’s hard to attest their correlation now, as the cuckoo is sadly so seldom heard, even with its namesake faithfully blossoming in expectation. The plant’s other common name is Lady’s Smock – I suppose because the flower’s delicate colour is similar to the pastel shades of ladies’ dresses formerly worn on spring mornings. But to me the flower’s chalky-pink is reminiscent of Calamine lotion, which in my childhood was regularly and liberally applied over sun-exposed skin to tone-down a rosier, angrier hue...

Buzzard on Bothen Hill

Sitting on the edge of an old tractor tyre,
I pushed my gaze through strands of barbed wire,
Until I saw you, perched high in a tree
Above a patchwork of fields spread greenly,
Imperiously poised in your throne-pine
As if to say “All this is mine...”
Then with fanned out feathers you drop and glide
Effortlessly soaring with wings held wide,
Tilted head and glinting eye;
Lord over the land, sovereign in the sky.