Weekly Witter: The rites of spring

Spring is all about promise, the promise of summer, of rejuvenation, of life after winter. It is a time of immense hope, and people need hope – as perhaps do other life forms. But spring occurs tantalisingly, with starts and stops and bitter retreats, in spasms almost, as if it is caught up within some eternal struggle between light and darkness, between warmth and cold. The relationship between spring and winter is one of push-and-pull, for spring pulses forward one day, or even one hour, only for winter to return the next. Spring pushes forward in pulses, winter holds on, weakly at times, grippingly so at others, till spring retreats, temporarily. It is as if there is a gigantean wrestling match taking place between two almighty titans, though spring always wins, eventually. Spring is, however, at best a fickle being, heavily prone to tragedy; for it can readily turn foul (as happened last year) or lead ingloriously into a failed summer. Although spring by no means always fulfils its immense promise, we are swept away by it, for it promises all and everything.

Spring is an exciting time for everyone.

Spring is an exciting time for everyone.

Right now, in late February, the struggle between spring and winter is at its most wondrous. On the whole the winter has been mild – though excessively wet – with the exception of a 10 day cold spell in late January that offered some great tobogganing, before it ended in yet more floods. Another cold spell is now developing, accompanied by a bitter wind from the east. Though chill, necessitating over-trousers, this wind is welcome and necessary, for it will dry out the land, and the land desperately needs to dry out. Many of us were unable to dig our gardens during a wet autumn, and many a field still needs to be ploughed, or even re-sown. Country lane verges are badly rutted, muddied and puddled, where vehicles have pulled over to give way, with increasing unwillingness. Our countryside seems tired out, having been tortured by months of flood and mud. But spring can mend that, and more.

The feeling that the land is drying out is one of the most wonderful of the many signs of spring. At times it is almost tangible. There are mornings when frost lifts into vapours that rise and dissipate over the countryside, whilst the sun turns from blood red to white against an azure sky. At such moments, on the very cusp of winter and spring, the rooks start to repair their rookeries, and the morning larks ascend. The rooks will be busy this late winter, for few of last year’s nests survived the storms and deluges. Mostly they will have to start from scratch. The lark will have to be heard above the increasing roar of traffic, even in this, the centenary year of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the final year before the Edwardian rural idyll was ended by The Great War. When the land dries out one of the other traditional sights, and sounds, of spring will occur – the old heavy roller will trundle along rural lanes, to press fresh growth into the pastures. The old farm hands will tell you it’s a job that cannot be rushed, like spring itself it has to happen slow and proper.

Snowdrops (Galanthus 'Nivalis') covering the ground at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Snowdrops carpet the ground like late snowfall at Anglesey Abbey.

The turn of March is a time of many firsts. We have already seen the first snowdrop, aconite, crocus and daffodil in the gardens, or hazel catkin, celandine and primrose in the wild. But the Ides of March provide almost daily firsts – blackbirds gathering nest material, wheatears appearing on the south coast, the first brimstone butterfly, and so on. The aconites and snowdrops are the first to finish for the year, but they pass unnoticed amongst a plethora of appearances.

Above all, spring must not come too soon or too hurriedly, for an early spring is high risk strategy – the earlier, the more vulnerable it is to winter’s pushback. Every now and then it gets away with arriving early, as in the great spring of 1990, but all too often it fails, as in the last two years. Slow and steady is the surest strategy, but patience is stale, and we are weary of it: we want spring.

  • Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years.  Although passionate about butterflies he is very much an all-round naturalist and is effectively the Trust’s resident naturalist. He works closely with the Trust’s network of ecologists and naturalist rangers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He has recently been featured in his own program on BBC Radio 4 “In pursuit of the ridiculous”.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
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