Little white spears are pushing up through the ground. In a week most have opened their lamps to the earth and brighten the bare grass beside the low stone wall. It is a joy to see them – the first sign of spring on the bare northern slopes of the Howgill Fells. Early one day, just after dawn, I stand at the edge of the garden. The snowdrops are luminous in the violet light, their bells soft and trembling, newer than snow itself. From somewhere not too far away the Mistle thrush drops his long notes into the cold morning air. It is a melodic soulful sound, deeper than any human instrument. In his song are the sad sighs of winter and the little lifts of spring. There are boldness and uncertainty in his tremulous sound, as if he expresses the painful cusp between seasons, where winter has not yet become spring and the grip of the old year still clings to the new.
The last time the sun shone I could feel the essence of spring in its hazy warmth. Birds and animals felt it too – a blackbird sung from one of the trees in the garden, and the dog sat out on the patio for the first time this year. Looking up to the Howgills, where the distant ridges were lost in a haze of cloud, the atmosphere itself seemed to promise the new season. That day the beams of the sun seemed to seek out everything living and fill it with hope and light. In the early part of the year winter carries spring, but only for a time, as spring soon gains strength and leaves it behind. On a day of sunshine, when there is warmth in the rays, it is possible to feel this transition taking place. The landscape is lighter, easier to travel through – the weightiness of winter is temporarily shed, the burden of the dead year has suddenly shifted somewhere else.
Until January there were still apples on the trees at the end of the garden. The fruit did not spoil, in spite of the frost and cold, and once peeled and stewed was edible even at the end of the month. All through the autumn and until midwinter the windfall apples have afforded food for wildlife. A wide area spread out beneath four trees is fought over by a variety of birds and animals. Magpies, blackbirds, red squirrels, pheasants, mice, and a semi-feral black chicken that used to belong to the previous tenants, all seek to lay claim to the bounty. They chase each other away in often surprising combinations. The other day a red squirrel was seen off by an assertive blackbird. The chicken is the most territorial and will run at other birds, and the squirrels, her neck stuck out straight, wings flapping. The windfall apples are full of holes – some pecked by different sized beaks, and other little spherical holes made by a mining grub or insect. Other apples have been gnawed down to their cores by rodents and squirrels.
A stone wall outside my study window has become an unlikely bird table that is shared by a single robin and a large party of rooks. The robin will visit every day to check what is there, whereas the rooks only come if there is food there already. The rooks assemble in a group of tall sycamore trees several metres away and will fly down in a group to raid the wall. If there is bread there they collect as much as they can in their beaks before flying away with it. They are gregarious and eager, and do not pause to consider what they are doing. The robin by comparison is more tentative in his manner. He hops and pauses, with a jerk of his head and a ruffle of his wing, then takes a mere crumb and hops off the wall with it. He always seems to check the bowl of water too and will sometimes sip from it.
The rooks are part of a vast army that scours the low grazing land of the Lune valley. In the low leaden skies of winter the rooks’ army sweeps the fields and trees, its black blizzard visible for miles. At 4pm one midwinter’s afternoon I went to stand beneath their roost – a long belt of Scots pines and fir trees. I watched them come in from the fields in great swooping parties, flying this way and that, cawing and signalling to one another. The scale of mass organisation as each and every one of the many hundred fluttered down into the trees was difficult to comprehend. Once safely settled in the upper reaches of the tall trees they would patiently wait out the winter’s night, their caws to one another continuing into dusk, only falling silent once darkness descended.
Somehow the snowdrops in the garden embody all of these things. The little flowers have waited out the long winter and their appearance signals a change in the turn of the season. Like the rooks they are impressive in their numbers and stoic in their attitude. They will face snow and frost before they receive the genial rays of the sun, but they remain undaunted. As the first spring flowers to appear they are tender yet strong – little lamps bravely shining their light through the darkness of winter – and even though we know they are on their way it is always a surprise to find them.