Spring is upon us, meteorologically anyway. We may not feel it in the raw winds or the several inches of snow that fell overnight on parts of the North, but it will become more apparent with every passing day, gathering pace like a cavalry charge that started as a walk, progressed to a trot, a canter, and then a full blown gallop that bursts through Summer’s defences. There will be some stumbles along the way no doubt, Winter is ever the worst hanger-on, like drinkers in a pub after last orders eking out the dregs of their pint, but there’s that inexorable something in the air that everyone, and every thing, feels. Yesterday under a blue sky, the hedgerows were beset with birds busying themselves frantically with preparations for the coming season. Blue, great and long-tailed tits dart, flicker, flash, scud and sail from bush to bush and twig to twig, occasionally disappearing within the confines of the ivy that in places smothers the hedges.
This time of year can feel schizophrenic. One minute I’m bathed in warm sunshine, sheltered from the breeze and positively warm in hat and gloves, and the next I’m in the shade at the edge of a pine plantation, where frost still hardens the grass between the bare earth of the sheep tracks, and the breeze furrows the air like the plough has the brown fields. Then a skylark starts to sing, its song climbing like a curl of mist in a shaft of sunlight; the seasons snapping back and forth between personalities.
Birdsong has the same ability that music has to transport me out of body, to a time, a place, a feeling. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene takes me back to legendary alternative nightclub the Pink Toothbrush in Essex, The Wedding Present’s George Best, to the pain of teenage love. A skylark’s song never fails to plant me on a footpath in the village I grew up in, alongside a field of ripening corn, a well-loved shaggy Airedale terrier like an old rug beside me, while the yellowhammer’s a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese lament takes me to a Summer evening in a different village, and my grandparent’s house that now I only drive past. Half-remembered moments of childhood, like closed-up rooms in an attic suddenly filled with sunlight.
Swinburne wrote ‘When the hounds of Spring are on Winter’s traces, The mother of months in meadow or plain, Fills the shadows and windy places, With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.’ The only leaves lisping today are those of the tree ivy, most of the hedges and deciduous trees are still bare, but there is a watchfulness over the landscape – the ‘Mother of months’ is waiting, and very soon buds will begin to open, leaves unfold, and crops green the rich brown of the fields.
Along the riverbank where I walk, amongst the grass clumps tussocked into wigwam shapes, a wren in her humble brown pinafore shows herself briefly before disappearing shyly like a reclusive old lady. She leaves her song behind her, and it follows the river-water in a spate towards the sea, spilling over the sill of a little weir, and weaving under the willows that sentinel the bank, as clear and lustrous as the chalk-filtered water itself. Again I time-hop more than thirty years, to another wren, in another place, that sang just as sweetly from the corrugated roof of a tumbledown shed where we ran as wild as the garden sometimes grew, this time with a floppy eared, soppy black mongrel at our feet.
Overhead a buzzard soars on the sky, mobbed by four rooks like whirligig beetles round a leaf turning slow circles on the quiet current of the river beside me. Its keen call is answered by another that drifts into view from above the pines where I think they are nesting. Very soon Winter will be the distant memory that Spring’s growth, and Summer’s warmth, will make it.