Bluebells, Breathing Space and Botanical Cuckoos…

A malaise seemed to have settled over us all on May bank holiday Monday (3rd May). It was one of those potter-about-the-house, can’t-be-bothered-to-get-our-backsides-in-gear days.

“Shall we go for a walk?” my husband asked.

“If you like, I don’t mind.”

“But do you want to go for a walk?”

“I don’t mind.”

Daughter – “Well…I was going to read my book…”

Son, as always, is happy to go along with whatever’s decided…

Cue exasperated husband, gripped by sudden decisiveness. “Come on,” he says, grabbing his shoes. “Let’s go!”

I knew he was right. The house had that stale feel to it. We’d been crowding it out for too long. It – and we – needed to breathe.

The weather was a bit doubtful – a cake slice of changing flavours: cloud topping, warm sun in the corners, cool breeze in the centre. But, when we caught a full hit of sun, the warmth was like a melt-in-the-mouth moment – and the sense of release into somewhere spacious and full of colour, was like an intense burst of flavour, after the porridge blandness of the day indoors.

Our local woods that day were like a gift. We breathed them in – each of us glad we’d made the effort to head their way. Treading the familiar paths, every inch brought new discoveries – colours, light, texture, sound.

Since our last visit, the bluebell transformation of the woodland floor had swept in like a magic spell, and they were in flower everywhere:

Picture of bluebell wood

Picture of bluebells

Close-up picture of bluebell flower

Clumps of greater stitchwort dazzled the sunlight from their pure white petals:

Picture of Greater Stitchwort - petals reflecting sunlight

Picture of Greater Stitchwort flowers

..and yellow archangel spread in profuse, golden trails along the woodland floor:

Picture of clumps of yellow archangel flowers

Close up picture of yellow archangel flowers

The occasional red campion was in flower beside the paths:

Close up picture of red campion flower

…and we also discovered green alkanet and violets in flower along our route:

Picture of Green Alkanet

Picture of a violet

That morning, the dawn chorus had floated in through the window with added volume – insistently prising under the edges of sleep, to wake me with a startled awareness of its change in tone. (I heard on the radio recently that Thomas Hardy described the birds singing at dawn as ‘persistent intimates.’ I love that phrase – it captures perfectly that pleasantly inescapable mingling with the consciousness of spring birdsong.)  More spring migrants must have arrived, adding to the hugeness of sound that filled the growing light. And now, in the woods, the trees were bursting with birdsong, each bird flinging its voice into the air, so that the notes seemed to shiver and scatter through the fresh, bright leaves.

I’ve never heard a cuckoo around here. This is a semi rural area – a mix of suburb and patches of wild space so, no doubt, not prime cuckoo habitat – but perhaps they were here in the past, I don’t know. Due to the cuckoo’s decline, the present time is increasingly a place where hearing a cuckoo call seems a lucky chance, rather than an expected herald of spring. I’ve not heard a cuckoo for far too long…

However, there were plenty of botanical cuckoos in flower on May bank holiday. Cuckoo Pint, or Lords and Ladies, flaunted primeval flowers everywhere:

Picture of Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies

 Picture of a Lords and Ladies (or Cuckoo Pint) flower

And we found two cuckoo flower, or lady’s smock plants along the damper areas of the main bridleway:

Picture of cuckoo flower (or lady's smock)

As we admired the delicately pink flowers of this food plant for the larvae of the orange tip butterfly – almost on cue, a male orange tip passed us by, brushing the air with the bright tangerine edges of its wings. But, generally, It wasn’t a butterfly day – there was too much of a chill in the air. The orange tip was confining itself to a sheltered, bluebell-intense dip, where patches of sunshine locked themselves to the ground, holding off the shadows.

But, as we began to wander home, those shadows suddenly crept across the paths – and the scent of bluebells intensified on the air – as a great, damp pall of cloud came out of nowhere and drew itself across the blue sky. Hurrying through the rain, we returned to the house, refreshed by this deep breath of the spring…

                                                 
                                                               

A Shakespearean take on cuckoos and cuckoo flowers:

When daisies pied and violets blue
    And  lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
    Do paint the meadows with delight.
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
                                Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

– From Spring song – Love’s Labour’s Lost – Act V, Scene II.

…And a beautiful description of a violet, with another link back to Shakespeare, from Ted Hughes; a perfect nugget of words to savour:

Only a purple flower – this amulet
(Once Prospero’s) – holds it all, a moment,
In a rinsed globe of light.

– From A Violet at Lough Aughrisburg by Ted Hughes (Flowers and Insects collection, Faber and Faber)

The Swifts have ‘made it again’

They’re back! Tumbling through the blue sky above our garden…

My first sighting of swifts this year!

At about mid-day today, I was hanging out the washing in a dreamy, basking-in-the-sunshine sort of way – a speckled wood butterfly fluttering close to my feet – when I heard the swifts call. Not that full scream, spread out across the sky like a banner – but a faint, familiar, busy, bubble of sound tossed between them in the air far above.

Instantly, I snapped awake – and jerked my head back to see three, then five altogether, tumbling, turning, glimmering way up in that liquid, clear blue.

I thought I heard swifts overhead last Friday; just the briefest of calls. But it was raining and very overcast, and when I scanned the sky I could see no sign… so, either I’d made a mistake – or they were there, hidden above the low, white curtain of cloud…

But now, I’ve seen them for sure! They’ve definitely returned! And the uplift of that moment is incredible – as it is every year.  All the nature lovers I know start buzzing with it – passing on the mantra: “They’re back!” – a shorthand everyone instantly understands.

Ted Hughes captures that moment, that feeling – and the pure essence of swifts (in description, and in the very movement and rhythm of the words) – to utter perfection:

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries.
      Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
                                  They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come –

 – From Swifts by Ted Hughes.

… My much-read copy of the poem lives in this volume, published by Faber and Faber, and wonderfully illustrated by Raymond Briggs; a volume my daughter bought for me one birthday. A perfect book for the generations to share:

Picture of book: Collected Poems for Children by Ted Hughes

Picture of text of Swifts by Ted Hughes