Thursday, May 12, 2011

The rite of spring

...And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the spring.
Henry Reed, 'Lessons of the War'
My mind was distracted elsewhere during April, and spring began.  The earliest of the hedgerow flowers had passed so briefly; violets so delicate they sag under their own weight, the primroses like spilt pools of sunlight, celandines butter-thick amongst the unravelling ferns.  As the fields filled with ladies' smock, I began to wonder about spring's signature moments; those arrivals which herald the change of the seasons.

The idea of spring messengers is implicit in the importance of the first cuckoo, and the transposable name of 'cuckoo flower' for a number of spring blooms, but I fancy that each of us has our own spring harbingers.  Amongst mine are the first curlew, trilling across the greening fields, or the wood anemones which brighten the woodland floor.  I also experience a small internal lift at the sight of cowslips, or trefoil on the hills, or skylarks lifting from dry grass.  Not forgetting, of course, the arrival of swallows and willow warblers, the unrolling of hawthorn leaves like children's hands, or the display flights of lapwings.
Of all these annual pleasures, the appearance of the may blossom is as sure a sign as any that spring has arrived, its blowsy scent filling the hedgerows.  'Ne'er cast a clout till may is out' is more true of the flower than the month, and Richard Mabey suggests that many of our spring fertility festivals which incorporate hawthorn (such as maypole-dancing) are based on its associations with illicit outdoor trysting.  We know that winter has passed when we can stay outdoors without the compulsion to move to keep warm.  Perhaps the true test of spring is the sense that we can live outside again.

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