Spring arrives with a spring in its step
THAT familiar little face appeared at the stone wall, all bright eyes and questing nose, an eccentric blend of courage and curiosity. In a moment it was replaced by a lithe, gingery, curve of a body. The last I saw was the black tip of a tail as the stoat slid noiselessly away into the field where shortly before I had seen a small, hand-sized hare, the first leveret of the year. Ten minutes and a hundred metres further on I heard a hard squeal that cut off abruptly.
I was looking at the last pale, drooping flowers of the snowdrops that normally decorate the woodland floor through much of February. This year they have mostly been and gone, leaving inconspicuous groups of slim green leaves where there had lately been glorious blooms. I consoled myself with the thought that in more exposed places the flowers will be less developed, and that I might yet find them there.
‘Many, many welcomes, February fair-maid,’ wrote Tennyson in praise of the snowdrop, ‘Ever as of old-time/ Solitary firstling/ Prophet of the gay time/ Prophet of the May time.’ Of course, in his day to be gay was to be happy and nothing else, and even in thoughts of May, who could be anything but happy? Already we feel that sense of excitement inspired by lengthening evenings and sporadic bouts of warm sunshine.
The snowdrop produces small amounts of sweetly scented nectar to attract flying insects. These act as unwitting pollinators in return for a sugary snack; how happy they must be to find such a store to help them through these long nights!
Other tiny creatures are afoot as well, including many that lack the power of flight. These must also feed themselves and no doubt the snowdrop’s alluring perfume is equally attractive to them. Determined, they make repeated attempts to climb the slippery stalk that holds the flower aloft. Perhaps they finally succeed in reaching the top; they find the flower and the prize it holds now dangling beneath them, tantalisingly close yet frustratingly still out of reach. They stretch to find that final foothold – those neatly folded, green and white petals – only to slip and fall back to the ground where they started.
In this way the plant preserves its vital resources for those insects that offer the greatest likelihood of pollination, that is, those with wings that can move quickly from bloom to bloom. Bees thus provide a great service for the snowdrop, as does the snowdrop for the bee. Neither truly depends on the other, yet how much better life is when all involved help each other along. We might find a moral lesson in the provision of Nature had not the stoat offended our sense of justice in slaughtering the innocent leveret.
As the last of the snowdrops fade so one of William Wordsworth’s favourite flowers begins to appear. The Lesser celandine, with its bright yellow, starry flowers, is well described by the poet: ‘Spreading out thy glossy breast/ Like a careless prodigal/ Telling tales about the sun/ When we’ve little warmth or none’.
Winter might seem to linger now, but we know warmer times are just around the corner. The snowdrop and the celandine might already have been noticed by the cock great tit which called endlessly above my head and all about. With the sun on his back and that softening breeze to draw the notes from his throat, what else could he do but sing to his love?
It is now that the first of the hibernating butterflies begin to emerge from dark corners, from the woodshed, the garage, the hollow, broken stump of a tree at the back of the garden. The small tortoiseshell is first on the wing, and sadly liable to succumb to adverse weather.
How often do we find her flitting at the window? She has slept in a fold in the curtains, unnoticed and untroubled, for three months. We let her outside, hungry, with little hope of finding food. Cotton wool soaked with a mix of honey and water will give her a chance to feed up before she goes. But go she must, to find her own way in a world where early flowers are still scarce, where the sun shines only through broken rags of cloud, where we would not survive.