The ‘blue-buzzed haze’ and passing days…

Amidst all the rain this May Bank Holiday weekend, Sunday 6th opened a window of sunshine – so we grabbed our chance, headed out to Westonbirt Arboretum

And stepped through into this…

It’s so difficult, via a photo or words, to convey the sheer sensuousness of being amongst bluebells. Almost impossible to convey the intensity of colour, the subtle layers of scent; the stunning effect as you turn a corner and see them there, spread at the feet of moss-rimed oaks – or splashed across the grass, gleaming in the light…

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes’

– Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the serenely beautiful video clip below, Robert Macfarlane sits in a Billericay bluebell wood and responds to these lines from The May Magnificat. He reflects on how he came to fully understand Manley Hopkins’ words, and to appreciate the accuracy of their imagery; how they capture that effect of ‘aqueous shimmer’ and ‘marine wash’ (Macfarlane’s own description) when you walk and sit amongst bluebells.

Reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (one of the most deeply mesmerising books I’ve ever encountered) is like experiencing a kind of meditation – an underworld of deep thought. This clip is from The Wild Places of Essex – a televisual accompaniment to Macfarlane’s book, and part of the BBC’s Natural World series back in 2010. It gives a flavour of that mesmerising quality of Macfarlane’s nature writing, and provides a visual feast of ‘blue-buzzed haze’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins again):

Bluebells are one of the specialities of the British Isles, our (blue) icing on the biodiversity cake. More sparsely present in continental Europe and absent elsewhere, they are a national – a world – treasure. We are guardians of around half the world’s population of Hyacinthoides non-scripta. It’s so easy to take things for granted. Even within the very essence of the bluebells’ transience, we feel a trust in their never-ending return.

Trust, familiarity, noticing. Do they always go together? Today, in flower all around us, there’s a very common plant indeed – one hardly ever heeded – which is also putting on a fine display.

The bright yellow shaggy manes of dandelions are spread out in the sun, with the occasional seed clock counting its time until the breeze breaks up its perfect globe.

For me, it is a plant so bound up with my childhood; with handstands on scruffy lawns; with tree-camps on the wild edges of playing fields; with searching out its jagged, pungent leaves so beloved by pet guinea pigs; and with gently blowing the time away on the wind… There’s so much, even the most commonplace, that we would miss if it were gone.

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust’

…writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline. Those ‘chimney sweepers’ (dandelion clocks) are an image of passing time embedded, from our earliest days, in our consciousness and culture…

Here in Silk Wood (the arboretum’s ancient woodland) – this April/May window of emerging leaf canopy, and tree-scattered light, not only belongs to the bluebells – but is also the moment when the early purple orchids step forward and come into bloom. After carefully keeping a lookout for them in likely places, the first one we see creeps up on us from behind, jumping into my vision as I idly glance up from admiring an “elven doorway” amidst the moss.

When we follow the path round to the woodland edge, we find, as we did last year, that hosts of early purples are thriving in the grassy clearing maintained for their benefit.

And we discover more in other clearings and on the wildflower meadow rides, where we have also found them in previous years:

Early purple orchid, Orchis mascula

Earlier today, we noticed the leaves of other orchids emerging from the soil – common spotted:

…and twayblades:

We sit on a bench for a while, jumping to our feet when we hear the yaffling call of a green woodpecker immediately behind us. We don’t manage to get a glimpse of the “Yaffle,” but moments later a great spotted woodpecker lands in the tree above our bench. It’s very far up, but I point the camera towards it on maximum zoom, and hope for the best:

With the naked eye, and through binoculars, we get wonderful views of its black, white and red plumage as it fidgets and shifts along the branches.

Deeper in the ancient woodland, among tree stumps transforming into fantastic, fairy tale sculptures…

…we come across a single white bluebell

and a male orange tip butterfly is busy feeding nearby:

Orange tip butterfly (male), Anthocharis cardamines

On April Fools’ Day, on the same path – almost on the same spot – I managed to get this picture of a comma butterfly:

Comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album

And just around the corner, almost a year ago to the day, I photographed this rather ragged red admiral basking in the late April sun:

Red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta

…whilst nearby, this beautiful peacock butterfly was feeding on those wonderful, nectar providing dandelions:

Peacock butterfly, Inachis io

Today, we are accompanied by the call of a chiffchaff, whilst all around, the birdsong is swollen by other recently arrived summer migrants, adding their voices to those of the resident birds. All along the edge of a plantation, there are clumps of stitchwort – and also water avens, bowing its meekly folded petals:

Water avens, Geum rivale

Lots of bugle is in flower everywhere and we find some red campion flowering too. And out in the damper, grassy areas of Silk Wood, lady’s smock – food plant for orange tip butterfly caterpillars – is also in flower. We pause to admire it, whilst two orange tips, a male and a female, flutter in courtship above the windmill whirls of pink flowers:

Lady’s smock (cuckoo flower), Cardamine pratensis

Tiny, fresh green hazel leaves are brewing energy for their future fruits, and the cherry blossom is still blousy against the blue sky. Last year, the blossom burst into spectacular, candyfloss profusion after the previous harsh winter – and gave a display that made the very earth seem to hum with bees:

On a high bank, a false oxlip is in flower, though now past its best… But, again, by the magic of time travel, a photo taken on this bank in May 2009 can whisk you back to when we managed to catch a previous year’s incarnation in a moment of full glory:

On the same bank, and on the arboretum’s downs, cowslips are in flower:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Beside some beech trees at the woodland edge, more twayblades are scattered profusely through the dog’s mercury, their flowers still bunched low, tight and closed, waiting their time.

And on the path where ramsons rule, their deep, damp wild garlic aroma fills the air. They are just beginning to unwrap their starry flowers:

– but soon they will fully reveal, in turn, their moment of stunning glory, when this path will be an avenue of billowing white.

Now, as the day – and our window of sunshine – begins to close, we watch swallows and house martins dash and twist in the sky. And a whole succession of moments lingers around us, blowing through the passing of the years – like the seed from those dandelion clocks, so perfect and waiting; playing their part in the cycle of things…


16 thoughts on “The ‘blue-buzzed haze’ and passing days…

    • Thanks, Diana – so glad you enjoyed it! By the way, talking of the year’s renewing moments… way behind your first sighting, I finally glimpsed my first swifts for 2012 on 10th May! There were two over our house first thing, my husband saw a few in the centre of Bristol later the same day… and then flocks of them were over our garden at the weekend. Wonderful!

  1. I heard my first cuckoo over the weekend… The last few days the light has changed and everything’s suddenly shining brighter with the trees out at last… it’s been a stop/start sort of spring, so thanks for bottling up the best to drink in later. I’ve been surprised by Gerard Manley Hopkins – he doesn’t have the most stirring sort of name for a poet does he? I remember a huge volume always sitting untouched in my local library when I was small, and just seeing it on the shelf used to make me think of gloomy vicarages for some reason! And here he is wallowing in bluebells and kingfishers and dragonflies with the best of them.

    • Everything’s just so GREEN again, isn’t it? Our damson trees are a sight to behold against the blue sky today (so lovely to feel the sun again, after the lightning and hailstones we had here yesterday!) Magical to hear a cuckoo again. I haven’t heard one for far too long… I’ve been relying on past bottled moments for that one for years now…

      Over the past year or so, I seem to have been picking up little snippets of Gerard Manley Hopkins here and there (in anthologies and books on nature writing, tv, radio – and now your blog! Kingfishers and bluebells seem a lovely serendipity!) So, recently I seem to have been following a very meandering path, learning little bits about him in a kind of slow reveal of his work. That kind of pieces together with your story about the huge volume in your local library… Your childhood memories and later surprise at his Romantic credentials seem really apt somehow, in light of how his poems weren’t read in his lifetime – and how he was later recognised as a progressive force in poetry; a new explorer of poetic form. Gloomy vicarages might not be far from the truth, from what I’ve picked up about his later life – he seems to have had a very sad, lonely time in his latter years as a scholar and Jesuit priest.

      I suppose ‘Windhover’ is his most well-known poem – that’s one I have known for years (I’ve been meaning to do a post on it). It’s lovely to discover his other work now (‘kingfishers catch fire,’ dragonflies etc…) – reading extracts from his journals recently, his nature writing is just so sensuous…

    • Thank you, Karen – it’s so lovely to read your response! So glad you’ve enjoyed the wildflowers. It’s wonderful to be able to share, and to discover, corners of wild beauty all across the world…


  2. Lovely post, Melanie, full of that particular spring light layering the land. I’ve just been dipping into The Wild Places again after reading it a few years ago, and it remains a marvellous miscellany of the wild, taking in the minor as well as major. Thanks for the beautiful collection of wildflowers you’ve brought to my day!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Julian – it was lovely to find your message waiting here for me this morning. I so enjoyed your wonderful nature writing on your blog yesterday – and will be heading back there very soon to drink in some more of your beautifully crafted explorations of wildlife, landscape and sense of place. I’ve never been to the wilds of Greece, and it’s a real treat to discover a whole new ecosystem, and cultural weave of people, place and the wild…

      The Wild Places lends itself well to dipping into for occasional re-readings, doesn’t it… like rockpooling, wherever you look, something of deep interest emerges to draw you in. I’m looking forward to Robert Macfarlane’s new book The Old Ways, out next month – just in time to accompany me along some of the local old ways around here – a sunken ancient track through Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve always springs to mind… with its banks full of wildflowers, buzzing with insect life in the summer months.

  3. Just wonderful – I can feel the exuberance both through your writing & through all those beautiful photographs. Bluebells are what I notice as not being present where I live; It feels as if they should exist here somehow & yet they do not. Something about that uplifting blue combined with the heady scent really triggers a special response. On the other hand all the other flowers you show are not denied me, so i can’t really complain too much!
    I love this time of the year – as I write I can hear a particular thrush, special to this year – I have re-named it the “hirdy girdy bird” as that is what it seems to be repeating! There are the musical raindrop sounds of the midwife toads too, enjoying yet more true rain again. The swifts seem to have taken a (hopefully temporary) break until the warmth returns. I love their acrobatics & high pitched screams. They always give me a sense of freedom – perhaps because I first associated them with having finished my “O” levels!

    You’re right about the dandelions too – they are beautiful & undervalued. I thought that about some buttercups too the other day. We had bugle flowering in the lawn & I had to leave it as a little island as I couldn’t bring myself to cut it – & why should I? I love the tree stump sculptures too. And the lady’s smock & the water avens ..& everything really. Thank-you for transporting me elsewhere – It has rained ALL week-end & I was supposed to be participating in an open air exhibition, but of course that was impossible, as was going for a walk – but it’s good to be reminded it’s all still there both in one’s memory & for the future..

    • Thank you, Sonya, for your lovely message – I’m so glad you enjoyed the wander through Westonbirt, and felt transported to its ‘blue-buzzed haze’. In turn, reading your words, I too have felt transported to your beautiful region of France – I can almost hear your “hirdy girdy bird” and what is, for me, the exotic and faraway ‘musical raindrop sounds of the midwife toads.’ Wonderful! The swifts have been weaving in and out of the days here too. They fly to such dizzying heights way up above the clouds, sometimes I wonder if they are there right above our garden the whole time, too far away to glimpse. The sun has just come out here and the clouds are clearing – I wonder if, at any moment, they will be back, out of that blue, diving low with that wonderful, uplifting scream.

      I’m with you 100% on leaving little lawn islands for wildflowers. For several years now, after some oxeye daisies we planted in our flower beds migrated to their proper habitat on the grass, we’ve been leaving patches of our lawn as “mini-meadows” for them to grow – and the results have been spectacular – daisies, buttercups (so lovely, as you mention), clover etc, all humming with life (invertebrates, birds – and hedgehogs!) And those patches are like a magnet for damselflies in the summer. Such a contrast to the mown bits of the lawn.

      Hope the sun is coming out for you where you are too – so that you can get back to your walks, your exhibitions and all your inspirations for your wonderful paintings!

  4. I just wish there were more people that thought about wild plants as you & I do!

    There was an article in The Guardian yesterday about nature in Britain & the Industrial revolution aspect of having helped create attitudes in favour of nature because of it having been lost for people when they moved to the cities. Not that I’m saying it’s at all a new idea (I’ve read this before in various places) but I can’t help comparing this aspect with Spain & France. Obviously the history & culture is different, but sometimes I get the impression in Spain (& the Basque Country) that nature has until recently (& still is pretty much) something that needs to be constantly battled against lest it overcomes us. So it’s very important to be modern, neat & tidy.

    I’m saying this because this morning I walked to work up the steps through the trees where for the last few weeks I’ve been appreciating beautiful purple columbines, ferns, comfrey, pulmonaria, dead nettle & buttercups in the lighter parts. When I walked back down all was strimmed away allowing the various bits of litter to take the limelight!
    I wasn’t really surprised – it happens every year, just this year it was later. Last year the wood anemones were strimmed away in full bloom.

    In spite of that (& the wind rain & cold only 12°C today compared to 27°C on Thurs! ( both abnormal) I did manage to lose myself in painting later on though.

    • Sonya, I so sympathise with how exasperated and downhearted you must feel at the loss of those beautiful wild plants. I’ve had that happen to me too; that uplift at the sight of wildflowers gracing some little edgeland somewhere – only to have my spirits plummet when I walk there again later and find it all strimmed away. What makes it worse is that it’s so senseless and needless – and, as you say, so often the beauty has been lost, only for us to be confronted by litter – more reminders of a disregard for what’s around in the environment.

      It’s very interesting the differences in cultural attitudes to nature – all sorts of different influences at work… and all very complex! In Britain, I think the Romantic movement has been a big influence on our attitudes and responses to nature – that Wordsworthian sense of the sublime… and that kick-back against the changes brought by industrialisation, altered farming practices, enclosure etc. seen in the attitudes of artists and poets such as Samuel Palmer and John Clare… That’s why I think the stories we tell ourselves as societies are so important; forging the attitudes we have to nature and our place in it, and our relationship with it. It’s a kind of cyclical process – the attitude feeding into literature, art and stories – the stories feeding into attitude…

      There’s a lot of love for nature around – and also a lot of disregard. Sometimes, I’ve received some very odd looks from people who I suspect think we’re a bit mad for not mowing all of our lawn, or not wanting to clear away piles of old cuttings because of hedgehogs and grass snakes etc… We are lucky here though near Bristol – it’s a city with lots of wildlife and with nature conservation traditions, though not without its problems. Funnily enough, I’ve been putting together a post that touches on this general theme just recently, and will be putting it up on the blog soon!

      Great to hear you managed to lose yourself in some painting, despite all the ups and downs…

  5. What beautiful pictures! I loved looking at them!

    You know, for many years, I actually thought that the “chimney sweeper” in “Cymbeline” were actually peopel who swept chimneys, and I used to wonder what the hell Will was on about? Of course, now I know what he meant on that particular point, but the play as a whole still leaves me wondering what the hell he was on about!

    There is a beautiful arboretum near where we are (Winkworth Arobretum), and your pictures have convinced me that that is where I want to be this weekend.

    • Thanks Himadri. Great to see you! So glad you enjoyed the pictures. I loved your story nugget about your readings of Cymbeline (I must admit, Cymbeline is not amongst the plays I know well; I must recitify that and have a wander through its mysteries!) Will’s writing is so saturated with folkloric, deep-roots rural knowledge and lots of country (often specifically Warwickshire) names for wild flowers etc (as Jonathan Bate puts it in his book Soul of the Age: the ‘social and natural ecology of rural Warwickshire plays a key part in his vision’) I often think that element alone could knock the tiresome anti-Stratfordian argument out of the water… I remember reading a discussion between Trevor Nunn and Mark Rylance in The Guardian in which, during his defence of Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, Trevor Nunn told an intriguing anecdotal story. I’ve just found the article, so I can add the quote here:

      Trevor Nunn:
      “You know when Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will”? An actor friend of mine many years ago was in Warwickshire walking down a country lane and he passed two men working at hedging, one of them 20ft from the other one. And he stopped and said, what are you two doing? And one of them said it’s quite simple, I rough-hew them and he shapes the ends. Every page has the country boy’s imprimatur.”

      Fascinating isn’t it – all that rural, deep-roots life seeping through into Will’s glorious poetry…

      Winkworth Arboretum sounds wonderful. Hope the rain holds off for you, if you do head out there this weekend!

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