Although it seems not to get as much as attention as flowers or blossom, pussy willow is for me – and many others – a highlight of late winter. Quite strangely and uniquely, it is a name that is over-specific and under-specific at the same time. It is not one species of willow, but several; and it is not a permanent name for these species, but a season-specific one. They are only referred to as pussy willow at the time of year when their male catkins emerge, covered in soft, silver fur.
I realised only a few weeks ago that they couldn’t all be one species, because the pussy willows I have seen near my house have shorter fur than the ones near Lavenham, which are as much fluff as bud, and glow when the sun is behind them. For five years I used to drive past them every week, but I rarely have a reason to go that way any more, and the road they line is not enticing. It is fast, bendy and not easy to stop on. Still, I have been wondering if I might not be too late to go looking there this year.
A little over a year ago, I completed my year of weekly ‘seasonal treasures’. I started the project as a form of self-medication: I suspected that I had some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that winter would always make me feel low, even though I had learned – consciously – to like it. Now I am not sure I was right. I wonder if it was in fact a combination of difficult circumstances for several years running that formed unconscious, bodily associations of winter with physical and emotional difficulties, and that these associations required a concerted effort to break, by replacing them with more positive ones. Whatever the problem was, my self-prescribed concoction of daily walks, a daylight lamp, more frequent social and musical engagements and, perhaps most importantly, weekly writing about highlights of the season, was more successful than I ever could have hoped.
I enjoyed the writing so much that I continued my seasonal treasures through the whole year. It wasn’t only the process of writing that had such a positive effect: it was the necessity of noticing, and dwelling on, the beauty around me, in order to choose something to write about. In fact, I ran out of weeks to include everything I wanted to. So the following year I thought I would continue, if less frequently, in order not to leave out anything important. But my intentions didn’t materialise. As time went on, I realised that without a self-imposed schedule, my more pressing writing engagement with Suffolk’s churches took over, and the seasonal writing was left by the wayside.
St Mary’s, Farnham The only Farnham I was aware of, until I examined my church map closely, was in Surrey. I was just as ignorant of the fact there was an accessible church so close to Stratford St Andrew, which I attempted to visit once about two years ago, forgetting it had been converted into a house. It was a good job no one arrested me on suspicion of trying to break in. If I’d known about Farnham, I would certainly have been delighted to cross the road and leave the A12.
19/6/2019 Last time I looked it was April: I’m not sure where this spring has disappeared to. I have been willing it to rain so that the irises in my rapidly drying pond might have the chance to flower before the goats ate them all. My wishes were in vain: but somehow a few flowers managed to escape their jaws nevertheless. The rain came too late for the irises, but the vegetables and fruits are thankful, as am I, for having far less watering to do than last year. And for the absence of moral dilemmas: my water butts are being filled regularly, so the hose is rarely called for.
After a slow start with bookings, this spring has been all about B&B, vegetable gardening and music, to the neglect of my new bathroom which has been waiting several months to be painted. But that is a winter job, and it will just have to wait: I have learnt that ruthless prioritising is the only way forward in spring. Meanwhile, the vegetable beds were mended and cleared in February with the help of a friend, and I finally got round to repairing, cleaning and goat proofing the greenhouse – only two years late. So both are in full green swing, prompted and encouraged by my friend Steve, who has been passing on spare seeds and plants and acting as my vegetable growing consultant. ‘What do I do about the potatoes which have been squashed by a crow that got stuck in the vegetable enclosure?’ ‘Will my Brussel sprouts recover after having nearly all their leaves broken off?’ (The rabbits and goats were happy with their dinner after that mishap.)
Meanwhile Dusty and Malteser have been specialising in cuteness; Winnie the Wood Pigeon is as gorgeous as ever and will soon celebrate her 2nd birthday; the goats took full advantage of their one opportunity (and I shall ensure it is their last) to break into the beautifully fenced rhubarb bed and leave a scene of devastation behind them; and my new rescue chickens, Cheeky and Monkey (Monkey is below centre) – no need to say more – have settled into Crossways Farm life as though they never knew anything else.
17/12/2018 When I first heard reports from friends and neighbours of bluebells sprouting in December, I thought they must be mistaken. I have rarely noticed snowdrop shoots in December, and that seemed far more likely than bluebells. With a large dollop of doubt and no first-hand evidence to settle the matter, I soon forgot about it.
Until last year, when I actually paid attention to what was under my nose.
25/10/2018 I tend to suffer from maple envy in autumn when I look above the ugly, half-bare conifer hedge towards my neighbours’ garden, and see the top of their bright red maple tree, which was yellow not long ago. This year it got me thinking. My dad and my brother planted plenty of maple trees in my garden, so where are all the autumn colours?
10/10/2018 For a few months in 2011 I lived next to a river near Pucón, in the temperate rainforest region of Chile. Large, evergreen shrubs that looked similar to box grew in abundance along the riverbank, and one day I saw a lady with her young son collecting buckets full of the red berries that grew on them. I asked her what they were, and what she used them for. ‘They’re murtillas’, she said, ‘I make jam with them’.
I picked some and ate them. The flavour was like nothing I’d ever tasted before, and I was excited. The next day I went back with a plastic bag to collect more, and so began my first jam-making attempts.
1/10/2018 I have never much liked ivy – except when it radiates sparrow chatter – and I don’t know many people who do. There is only one context in which I think it has any aesthetic appeal: growing, spider-like, up the outside of an old church wall or door. But I know those conserving the buildings must be at constant war with it.
Six years ago, when I first started walking along the South West Coast Path, I had an entirely new experience of ivy. Almost simultaneously I heard a loud buzzing and noticed a strong smell of honey. I looked ahead and saw a long stretch of hemispherical yellow-green flowers on both sides of the footpath. They were covered in bees, wasps, bumblebees and hoverflies. Butterflies were also fluttering about them.
21/6/2018 I am so late with my last two spring treasures that they have spilled over into summer. I mustn’t use this as an excuse to abandon them though; they have been flitting around in my head, even if they have not alighted until now.
I thought pyramidal orchids would be my choice of penultimate spring treasure. They grow in my wildflower meadow – though I have only found one so far this year – and there is a forest of them at the Hobbets. In the end, however, I realised it isn’t just the orchids I love, it is their context: the sheer abundance of them at the Hobbets amongst the oxeye daisies, meadow vetchling and black medick. What’s more, there isn’t just one species of orchid there, but two. At first I thought they were a variation of the pyramidal orchid – which is known to range in colour from pale pink to deep pink-purple – but now I know better. They are marsh orchids. To my shame, I haven’t yet identified which type of marsh orchid they are, but I will make the time this very week and take along my plant identification guide.
4/2/2018 The viburnum is one of the very few winter blossoms I have in my garden. Usually the only one, in fact, unless the weather is unseasonably mild and spring blossom arrives early. I know next to nothing about shrubs, but I have managed to identify it with a fair degree of certainty as Viburnum x bodnantense, ‘Dawn’, a large deciduous shrub (bordering on small tree) that produces sweetly fragranced clusters of light pink flowers from autumn to spring.