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Posts Tagged ‘wildflowers’

Bee-orchidThere are days that fall easily into two seasons, opening with a shimmer of spring heat before leaning back into winter-cold skies and bitter winds by their end, as if at the last moment a set of scales was tilted with the addition of a final, decisive weight. There’s little that is predictable about this span of turning time; perhaps uncertainty itself is the only thing we can be sure of when it comes to the weather – that a day of sunburn and sandals in the garden can just as easily be followed by a fall of brilliant snow as by another decadent show of burnished light. At times it can feel like we’re riding a seesaw throughout the day, never gaining more than a few hours of stillness at either end. Inconstancy is the mid-season’s sole promise.

PrimrosesEdges

Yet beneath this vivid and unsettled surface of weather, the abrupt and dramatic variations that visibly define this in-between time, there’s a constant murmur of transformations, the unseen but steadfast shift towards spring. Birds set sail on their long migratory journeys out of sight from us, triggered for the most part by changes in the length of daylight at their departure points, arriving with us one day as if conjured out of thin air after crossing countries, continents and countless travails. Sap rises invisibly through trees, the roots sponging up water, nutrients and minerals from the deep dark earth until we notice the swelling green buds and remember the shape of leaves. The streams in the valley ripple fast, suddenly bolstered by snowmelt that has trickled into rivulets and ravines from the high surrounding slopes, each flake condensed into a cumulative cascade of water by warming air. Even beneath us, after snow squalls and throughout ice-fastened nights, corms, bulbs, rhizomes and roots are pushing new shoots through the cold soil to spear towards a far star. Cusped on the threshold of a new season, we’re witness to just a sliver of this wondrous becoming.

Crocus in snow

Easter, Lesser Prespa Lake

Last week friends came to stay after days of blustery snow heralded the sunlit white blizzard of wild blossom. Their ten-month old son, Nojus, was at that in-between age when he craved more than just crawling but couldn’t yet walk on his own. Instead he hitched himself to a low table or chair for support, hesitantly stepping sideways while holding on with his hands, as if clinging to a narrow cliff ledge high above a canyon. Whenever his mother or father helped him, though, he would strike out with visible glee, jettisoning the table or chair as if it were unnecessary ballast, moving forward in thrall to procession, the simple and timeless joy of steps. I watched how his tiny legs wavered and wobbled, suddenly buckling and crumpling unexpectedly beneath him. And I saw how a deep and infectious smile spread brightly across his face when he rose up on each new attempt. Crawling no longer seemed to fit him whenever he scrambled across the floor again, as though it were just the last days of an old season before the new one began. And then one evening, while his father guided him away from the lamp in the corner of the room that endlessly fascinated him, there was something different about the way Nojus’ legs moved with each step. Something solid and articulate, something secure. “He has so much more strength in his legs,” said his father. “He couldn’t do this at all yesterday.”

Primroses in snow

Hellebore wearing a hat of oak leaves

The pale promise of primroses light the riversides like lowered lanterns. Overnight they could be buried by sudden snow, but at midday, in the sun-melted spaces, a soft petal-glow will shine through, a delicate and persistent gleam. Nightingales are back in the valley again, their bright, staccato songs splashed in a spill of sun; and the silence between phrases, the shaped and beautiful waiting. Swallows zing across the sky like gusts of wind and woodlark song falls like a slow and melancholy rain from the suddenly green hills, all those spears of grass angling skyward, just like the risen hellebore that I find wearing a hat of oak leaves. Willows are crowned by vernal light, each uncurling leaf inscribed by sun along its edges. Throughout the valley a snowstorm of white blossom froths in the cool winds that slope from the mountains, releasing a dazzle of sweet scent that hauls in bees like a net. We are at the edge of the turning world, when days waver like a spun coin until the weight of incalculable change finally tips us into spring. And when I next see our friends’ son he’ll be deep into a new season, walking his small corner of world on his own.

Sun sliver

Blossom season, Great Prespa Lake

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To listen to an audio version of ‘First Things’ click the play button

You hear the long, quavering call of a blackbird and open the window, stiff after the swelling snow. The song slips inside, spins and swirls for a few moments, and then steals you from the room. Standing outside, warmth lilts about your fingers and face for the first time in months. You sense the sap rising to the apple buds, the stars of white blossom on the cusp of erupting.

A lizard skitters madly along the wall, darting over the stones as if they were coals. Crocuses purple the dark earth and water runs as if in a race, unlocked from snow and ice to stream down the mountains and pour as a river into the lake. Tree sparrows fumble in the branches of the quince, shuttling old leaves and grasses, sometimes shiny candy wrappers dropped by kids, to furnish a nest in a stone cranny of the house. Pale green shoots are spearing through the ground. You look down to see you’re standing on a new season.

Brimstone, tortoiseshell, Queen of Spain fritillary: the names of butterflies on the tip of your tongue, forgotten there all winter like the handsaw you set down and didn’t find until the shrinking snow returned it, wet and rusted on the grass. But seeing those first flights – the early and uncertain flutters of amber, lemon and orange wings glinting in the sharp sun – and a whole language falls into place, a homecoming book left dusty on a shelf. You turn the pages of returning things, feel the shape of their names in your mouth. Swallowtail, wheatear, nightingale. You let them linger on your lips, trembling and ready to fly.

The first things of spring are ancient and repeated, and yet somehow uniquely new. No matter how many springs have preceded it, the season always feels like it’s arriving for the first time. There’s a quality of the ecstatic to it all, like the spell of first love wild and requited. But a first love that’s recurring. All that appears shares the mystery of being simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar, the paradox of a circle that turns, bringing the same season back to us after a lengthy absence. The same season seen differently. You feel the sun that’s unfurling the world and know it could be the first you’ve ever felt. You hear the long, quavering call of the blackbird and let its song slip inside.

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In 1972 the writer, Annie Dillard, began assembling hundreds of index cards, where she’d jotted down thoughts and quotations from a range of readings, meticulous observations of the seasons, notes on the natural processes that she’d witnessed near her home in the mountains of Virginia, and crafted them into a whole. The resulting book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a luminous and rhapsodic work that delves with great honesty into both the beauty and the violence of the natural world. At times quiet and contemplative, Dillard’s writing also reaches incandescent heights when her youthful, exuberant eye and sensual perception engage with the mysteries and specifics that surround her. The book invites us to partake of an intimate and closely observed world.

Just like the present, that mercurial moment that so often seems tantalizingly just out of reach, and to which Dillard devotes a great deal of attention, spring can be a difficult thing to grasp. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard finds herself chasing the seasons, especially spring, seeking the epiphanic in every movable moment. “Catch it if you can” she says of the brimming season, daring herself and her readers to make the embrace, to latch on to the myriad transformations. It is a refrain heard throughout the book  – catch it if you can -and upon which she stakes much of her alluring language. 

From the moment it begins spring unfurls like spooled ribbon, picking up speed the closer it gets to its end, until it blurs by in the flash of an eye. Where deciduous forest in winter holds light in equal measure to wood, the meadow-green canopy seems to enclose so swiftly in spring that only a few small hollows of light sparkle their way in before it seals. Rivers swell with the waning snow, raising ponds and marshes from the ground you once walked. For all its descriptions, accolades and clichés spring remains a season of surprise.

The transformations that most entrance me are the waves of colour that sweep through the season. These are wildflower days, when any place, be it rural, urban, or industrial, has a shot at being decked with new tints. The colours streak through meadows and over hilltops, burrowing into the forest depths. They brighten the cracked pavements and vacant lots slumped at the edge of town, funnel along beside railway lines and factory yards. Wildflowers will themselves into place through an ungovernable determination, an audacious resilience. And there is energy within it all, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas so evocatively put it. But there’s the rub: the energy needed to flower is so intensely focused that it tends to wilt quickly, shifting gear into the making of seed. Skip a few days in any one place and certain colours will have come and gone, replaced by others in spirited succession.

Across the hills and meadows of Prespa wildflowers have been racing for weeks – orchids, fritillaries and asphodels; primroses, geraniums and irises; all mingling and moving on, their vacant spaces taken up by something equally entrancing. Like every other year when I’ve walked the spring land, I’ve again missed many flowers, arriving too late to their places of bloom. But I prefer to think of those I’ve been fortunate enough to find, those brief seasonal sparks like grace notes embellishing the earth. Spring is winding down and nearly finished for another year, its colours fading to summer’s dry grain. But there’s a little time in the season yet, and its last, unfolding songs are ecstatic. Catch them if you can.

Many thanks to Jan Jordan for her help with the flower identification…

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