4/5/2018 Ducks seem to have an uncanny ability to combine sense with silliness.
I had made up my mind that the first urgent garden job to be undertaken when the weather became more clement was to weed the rhubarb bed. I could barely distinguish rhubarb from weed, but I knew it must be nearly ready for picking by now. So, as soon as the sun appeared, I made my way through the fencing designed to keep out goats but almost as effective in keeping out humans.
But before I had done more than cut out a couple of brambles, I bumped into a duck. Almost literally: I didn’t see her until I was standing right next to her, and she barely moved even then, except to lift up her head and look at me in slight alarm.
So much for that, I thought, after I had recovered from the surprise. But then I realised, as long as I kept my distance and left her plenty of cover, I could probably start weeding from the other end without disturbing her. As I started on my task, I reflected on her choice of nesting location. Sensible duck, I thought: she has chosen a well-hidden spot with extra fencing protection against predators. I’d never have found out she was there if I hadn’t tried to weed the rhubarb bed. Silly duck, I thought: how on earth is she going to get her ducklings out?
30/4/2018 I love swallows. I could tell you what I love about them: their chattering, aerial acrobatics, colours and streamers. I cannot think of their migration to and from Africa every year without a sense of awe – almost disbelief. I look forward to their arrival in spring, feeling that they carry the new season on their wings, regardless of the weather – and we are shivering in yet another cold and rainy spell.
But none of this really explains my feeling for them: they are far more than the sum total of their characteristics. They carry a whole world of delight and symbolism within their weightless bodies; they are the stuff of poetry and folklore. One day – if I can work out how to do it, and make my peace with libraries – I would like to create an anthology of swallow literature.
22/4/18 I had all but chosen my next spring treasure – a task which I am finding to be no mean feat – when on Friday morning, sitting on the terrace doing admin, I heard a duck approaching the terrace from the driveway. I realised that the sound she was making could signify only one thing: she had babies with her. I was kept in suspense for only a second or two longer, before fifteen tiny egg-shaped fluffballs appeared under the gate. Their size and shape alone indicated they had hatched within the last day, but their huddling together and falling over their feet as they walked left no doubt.
Butterfly rescues: 3 As it turns out, there is an unexpected hazard involved in visiting churches in early spring – in fact, three. Who would have thought butterflies coming out of hibernation could singlehandedly create so many? The first is that instead of practising the cello, I spend my time trying to rescue butterflies fluttering helplessly in church windows. The second is that I risk ending up in A&E with some injury caused by less-than-sensible attempts to reach butterflies at high altitude: it’s all very well getting up there, but you also have to get down again with both hands in use as a butterfly trap. The third hazard is that, inevitably, there will always be butterflies out of reach, causing me no small amount of heartache. Perhaps I will have to invent the world’s longest extendable butterfly net specifically for rescuing butterflies trapped in churches…
St George’s, Stowlangtoft
Outdoor temperature: 11.6˚C; indoor temperature: 10˚C, humidity 53%
My first butterfly rescue of the afternoon was an easy one: it was on the floor of Stowlangtoft church. It looked sleepy but I thought a little sunshine and nectar might revive it, and I put it on a primrose outside the chancel door through which I had entered. I could do nothing to help the other butterfly which was fluttering at the top of a window.
16/4/2018 Richard Jeffries suggested the skylark should be considered a representative of winter: instead of cold and darkness, he thought, why not ‘a sign of hope, a certainty of summer?’ It was his essay that helped me to think of winter in a different way.
I half expected to include the skylark in my winter treasures; after all, I have heard skylarks sing over the fields around the Hobbets on many a clear, mild day in February. It just happens that I didn’t hear one until April this year. It is likely I simply wasn’t in the right place at the right time; but the longer wait and the circumstances of my first skylark song were part of what made it so special.
26/3/2018 It is hard to believe it is nearly the end of March and signs of spring are only just beginning. Apparently deciding after the last icy spell that they had waited long enough, all the flowers and blossom appeared all at once: blackthorn in the hedgerows, carpets of primroses, daffodils in earnest, violets and periwinkles. I saw the first green leaf on my hardiest hawthorn plant this week, and a moorhen made up her mind to settle in her nest on the front pond.
But still there is far less in the way of spring than was to be found at the beginning of March last year. Mowing the lower lawn is still a good fortnight or more off – I would sink into a mole tunnel-ridden bog if I were to try it now – and I have yet to find a white or mauve violet, celandine or Siberian squill in my garden. The daffodils are only just beginning to think about showing their faces.
18/3/2018 It is the penultimate day of winter. This year the equinox falls on 20th March instead of 21st. You wouldn’t know it though: the arctic conditions have returned. The temperature dropped from 16˚C to -2˚C in 24 hours and the ground is covered in snow and ice.
But my winter therapy seems to have worked: I don’t mind if the cold weather lasts a little longer, and my list of winter treasures has grown so long that I will have to resume the project next year. In fact, I have enjoyed the challenge so much that I am thinking of continuing it for the remaining seasons of the year; and, contrary to my initial assumption, I think I might find it more difficult to choose 13 spring treasures than I did winter ones. After all, how do you identify the most important elements in a bombardment of euphoria?
25/2/2018 I admit it. I cheated. Slightly. In December, worried that I might struggle my way through to spring, and thinking it prudent to book a holiday after the dreaded tax returns and before the new B&B season got underway, I arranged to visit friends in Alcalá de Henares, a university town near Madrid. It is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind for winter warmth, lying at an altitude of nearly 600m and with much more unpredictable winter weather than southern Spain; but nevertheless I knew there was a much greater chance of sunshine than at home, and that by February the Spanish sun would feel warm regardless of how cold the air was. In any case, a change of scene and some restful time with friends would be just as good a tonic as sunshine.
13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.
Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.
30/12/2017 The replacement of the blackbird’s song with the robin’s is the first sign for me that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching. The blackbird’s song seems made of water; the robin’s, of ice. There is usually a pause between the two songs: the blackbird stops singing in July, and the robin begins towards the end of August. In fact, I have recently learned, robins sings all year round except for a few weeks in summer, during moulting.
My little friend hasn’t yet returned to claim his (or possibly her) winter territory in the courtyard. Sadly, it is quite possible he is no longer alive, as apparently robins rarely live for more than a year or two. Last year he kept me company most of the winter, appearing whenever I scattered seed for the chickens, and hopping to within a foot of me, so that I thought he might eat out of my hand. When I went to sweep out the goat shed, he would sit on a beam above my head, singing quietly.