MARCH - "To do nothing but grumble and not to act - that is throwing away one's life." (William Morris)
A bitterly cold dawn marked the end of February and took us into a promising March - lion-like and defender of Winter - until Spring coaxed away ferocity with guileless innocence. The power of goodness - of wholesomeness - can have the coat off your back - as in Aesop's fable, "The North Wind And The Sun". Classified as the power of persuasion over force, closer consideration leads me to believe it's a story of the strength that is in kindness. Reader's right! One of my very favourite children's novels is "The Children of Green Knowe" by Lucy Boston. (I read it to my grown-up children over Christmas each and every year.) This includes reference to Mr. Aesop and his tale of "The Ass In The Lion's Skin" where the ass finds that disguise cannot change who he actually is. C. S. Lewis used the tale to deceive those who were willing to be persuaded of Aslan's return to Narnia.
The brightness increases. For a number of days there was a grey membrane over our northern town, letting in just enough light to remind us it is March. Now the sun teases along the ridge of rooftops across the square.
"The night wanes into morning, and the dawning light broadens, and all the shadows fade and shift!" (Longfellow)
Spring arrives and, with it, a cracking crispness of clear skies and horizons. For all its stark beauty, Winter can't produce a canvas completed with such fresh precision as Spring's offering. The newness bellows through the lambs' bleatings. We made it! We've come through Winter 2020/2021! We'll never forget it - nor should we - but it is so important that we learn from it and move on - with great care.
The winds which sweep away the dregs of Winter are useful for loosening the topsoil and for spreading the seeds across arable fields . There is nothing deceptive about March. What you see is what you get! A howling gale. An iced morning. A day so bright it makes you screw up your face!
My memories of March? Well, just a few of them.
As a child, living in rural Lincolnshire, I watched hares boxing in the fields between dust storms. Although there were still miles of hedgerows in my home county at that time, they were beginning to disappear in favour of larger fields. As they went, so did the soil! Soil erosion became a problem and sometimes the fields resembled the beach - with small dunes and ridges around the edges.
I also have a strange memory of dancing down the street - just because it was March! I was nine or ten and so full of something I have never been able to put into words - something a bit like "the thrill of Spring" - that I twirled my way from my friend's house to my home. I've never forgotten it - and I still get that inexpressible feeling every year - one day in March.
There were irresponsible things too. We would fill a tall metal dolly-tub with water and go in search of frog spawn. We simply wanted to nurture and observe but it wasn't the best idea! Only two percent of frogspawn will survive to maturity. I suppose that's why the frogs produce so much of it. Each spring, even now, I am amazed at the size of the spawn puddings in ponds and ditches.
Spotting the first bumblebee of Spring has always been another highlight of the season. Bumblebees have a very important role to play - even though they don't produce much honey - it is the honeybees who do that. The bumblebee is, in fact, a great pollinator - and if we lose the bumblebee, we lose our food supply.
Now what else?
There is so much avian activity that it is easy to miss something. The wren is building multiple nests so that he can impress a mate. If she likes what he is offering, she will do the interior design herself. She has the final word! I'm a big fan of the little wren. Such a character! The little ones from the first brood will help with the upbringing of the later ones. And that song! I reckon that the song of the skylark and the song of the wren are connectors with heaven! When I hear the skylark, I want to follow up, up, up there. When the wren sings his exquisite song, he brings heaven down to me!
We have some peculiar bird anniversaries here. Mid-March is when we are visited by a brambling. Now, I don't know how long bramblings live so I can't guess whether or not it is the same little chap returning each year in March but I like to think it is. They are here all through Winter but I've only spotted the one - and that's a bit unusual because they are sociable birds - in our garden at the very end, as the days are getting longer. I've heard that they are now breeding here in northern Scotland so let's pretend he's doing a recce for this year's nest! We also have a pair of chaffinches spending a good deal of time at the feeding station - so identification may get a little complicated if they too should nest nearby.
I saw a sparrow trying to carry a very large mouthful of scrubby grass and bits of things through my little stretch of hedgerow. They are all so busy!
Last year, my amazing daughters made a pond for me. I put a stout branch across the length of it so that, should the birds accidentally find themselves challenged, they would have a better chance of getting back to dry land. In the last couple of weeks, I've seen dozens of small birds using my bridge to squat on while they took as much water as they needed. Every living creature has a right to water.
This morning I took the rubbish out early and had a quick glance over the garden. There was ice on the pond and on the bird bath. Primroses were cowering against the cold. The Lenten rose looked quite unwell and, if I had an overactive imagination - who, me? - I would say that I heard Jack Frost quietly clucking behind the long-suffering Portuguese laurel. Yesterday, I thought seriously about putting back the window boxes - today, I'm glad I didn't! The low temperatures don't appear to have slowed down the growth of the bulbs though. Every day I feel certain they are visibly taller.
I do think, though, that things are a little later than they have been in recent years - perhaps due to the colder winter. Last year, 2020, I wrote in my diary, on 16th March, "Things continue to grow in spite of the dreadful coronavirus." We didn't know then just how dreadful it would turn out to be. It was at the very beginning of March last year that I spotted the flowering currant in bloom on the straight road at the top of Newtonhill, before we take the turn-off to walk Orlando. On the same day I noted, "The Lark (was) Ascending" and was singing beautifully. This year I couldn't be sure I had heard it until Tuesday, 9th March. My cousin, in Lincolnshire, heard it back in February. Did you know that a gathering of larks is called an "exaltation"? So much nicer than a "murder of crows"!
Green buds are now showing on the hawthorn and other hedgerow neighbours - like the dog rose. When I lived in Lincolnshire, I would keep checking on the blackthorn at this point. Very pointy - but so delicate. We had a number of blackthorns in our garden at Hope Cottage. They did so well there. I don't know why I loved them so much because I've injured myself several times misjudging their spines! But they have such dainty white blossom and they are an early source of nectar and pollen for the bees. You can use their blue-tinged black berries to make sloe gin too - if you have the patience to prick them all over. I don't - but I'll share yours if you have!
I'm already writing about harvesting! But how can you not - when the sap is rising all around you? So much new life - and sustenance to maintain life.
For the first time, our Portuguese laurel has resin coming from it. Nearing its end or a wonderful gift? There are different ways to see change. It's what we do - now - where we are - that matters. We have problems. Who isn't sickened by the horror stories on our screens? A whale had to be euthanised and was found to have 30 plastic bags in its stomach. It really really hurts to know that the progress of the human race has been at the expense of the other creatures sharing Planet Earth with us. But we know this now - where we are - and we can make amends.
William Morris, activist, textile designer, poet and novelist as well as translator of "The Odyssey", refers to March as "Thou first redresser of the winter's wrong". I love that! Morris was a kindly bear of a man who was a socialist when that meant someone against class snobbery. Now, who can argue with that? Morris was considered eccentric by some establishment figures - but isn't that what they do to people who ruffle their feathers - brand them as eccentric - at best? Morris wanted to break down the barriers of class and nationality. What's not to like? His ability to, literally with his textiles, weave the beauty of the natural world into his creativity, was a great gift to us. The apparent simplicity of some of his work highlights the layered character of the seasons - of the year - and of each and every individual. Winter doesn't simply stop on the first day of spring. Spring doesn't wait for the vernal equinox, this year on 20th March, to roll up her sleeves and get to work. Nature is a many-layered beauty - and not always palatable. This week we passed rooks pecking to death a weaker rook. I'm not good at this side of Nature. People have layers too. We're not always agreeable but I maintain that the good will forever outweigh the other. We can be superheroes!
"Thou first redresser of the winter's wrong". Yes, I think that those of us who want to help the war effort against the impoverishment of our planet, could do far worse than board the Morris motor in March and view this freshest of seasons with optimism and positivity.