Last year I heard my first cuckoo on 27th April, this year it was the 29th. I was listening to a radio programme recently when the presenter, a middle-aged lady, said that she had never heard a cuckoo, the nearest to it being in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. It made me think about what we have lost, since I am sure that she is not alone and this quintessential sound of spring, taken for granted for generations, is now rarely heard and in some parts of the country people never hear its familiar call. Cuckoo populations in England have declined by an estimated 65% since the early nineteen-eighties, less so in both Scotland and Wales. The lives of migratory birds are complex and it is therefore difficult to point to a single cause for this decline but ornithologists have noted that autumn droughts in Spain, through which cuckoos pass on their way to Africa, have depleted insect populations at a time when the birds most need them to replenish fat reserves. This results in higher mortalities on the migration route. To add to this habitat loss in this country and also dwindling populations of host birds gives the cuckoo fewer opportunities to interpolate their eggs into nests. Cuckoos are in danger of passing into folk mythology.

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I love the opening lines of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, the sense of force and vitality which drives the words:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

TS Eliot

Yet I cannot understand their sentiment, since I do not find April as “the cruellest month” at all. I find the boisterous opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales closer to my feeling about this time of year:

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The light in March is fresh. The sun is catching the trees and fields, it glances on the hill-tops and it fills out the shadows with a new vigour alerting us to the arrival of spring. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), that extraordinary poet from Amherst, Massachusetts, who spent the latter part of her life secluded in her room at the family home and wrote over 1800 poems, few of which were published in her lifetime, was alive to the moods of light in a painterly way. Her poem, ‘A light exists in Spring’ has illuminated the way I have looked at the countryside in this first week of March:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the year
At any other period-
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of Sound
It passes and we stay-

A quality of loss
Affecting our content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Emily Dickinson
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Beneath the ground things are stirring and there is hope in the air as we begin to hear, see and feel the spring coming on. I always think February is one of the best of the months as the days are visibly longer and for the first time in ages new growth starts appearing as each day goes by. It is true that we can still experience harsh weather but there always seems to me to be light at the end of the tunnel. This year that flicker of light and hope is important as so many of us have been through a wretched time in recent months; now on the cusp of spring, we have the vaccines that our scientists have developed with astonishing brilliance, which will bring normality back to our lives and prevent the old and vulnerable living in constant dread of the virus.

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We decided to explore more footpaths this month, as there were still several on the map that we hadn’t walked. The idea has always been to walk from the house and not use the car and it is surprising how much latitude this gives. The first of December was a lovely sunny day, ideal for rambling and we decided to head in the direction of Lukyns, a large mansion on the edge of the parish. To get there we followed a route that was very familiar, up to the badger wood at Gull’s Isle and then along to Radnor Place Farm. There is always something new to see in these woods and I noticed some enormous bracket fungi growing on the fallen trunk of a silver birch tree, one of these looked remarkably like a Cornish pasty, though I doubt it would be as tasty. The nearest match I can get in the guide book is Laetioporus sulphurous, which loses its yellow colour as it ages and looks a similar shape. The other bracket was white and I think was Piptoporus betulinus (Birch Polpore), which, as its name suggests, is commonly found on Birch trees. This is not edible but has been used in various ways; it is an effective razor strop, though few men use the type of razor that is sharpened in this manner today, it is also good as tinder and can be utilised as an absorbent or for polishing.

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A Changing Season.

The weather in November is unpredictable. It started with gales and heavy rain; after the storm, as I walked through Sayer’s Croft and Canfold Wood, I was thinking of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when he complains, ‘Water, water, everywhere,’ for it seemed that rainwater had found out every crevice, ditch and channel to run down. The marshy area near Sayers Croft Farm had been transformed into a small lake and the adjacent fields were flooded. There are many moles in the field and I wondered what happened to them when their tunnels are saturated by heavy rain. We know that moles dig deeper tunnels in the winter because the warmer soil lower down means that worms are still plentiful and also the moles find protection from freezing temperatures. There has, however, been little research, as far as I can tell, on what they do when their tunnels are flooded. The only mention of this in Kenneth Mellanby’s monograph on moles states that they find other drier tunnels. In the heavy clay of Ewhurst waterlogging must be a perennial problem and yet it does not deter a large population of these animals flourishing in the region.

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John Lewis-Stempel writes in his book Meadowlands:

November is one of my favourite months, with its faded afternoons of cemetery eerines, and its churchy smell of damp moulding leaves.

John Lewis-Stempel

The clocks have gone back and the evening comes early, the sun setting in late afternoon, creating the gloomy half light so characteristic of this month. It is a month that starts with a commemoration of the dead, as 2nd November is All Souls Day when in some countries church bells toll to comfort the dead and candles are lit in remembrance of them. The traditions also include the giving of soul cakes to children who come to sing or pray for loved one’s souls.

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Late October.

I often think about the Bronte sisters at this time of the year, as they loved wild weather and their haunted literature summons the elements in a primal way that deeply inspires me. The word “wuthering” means a strong wind or place where there is a strong wind, coming from old Norse, the word is picked up in Yorkshire dialect. It sounds a blustery, feral word and Emily Bronte chose it to name the hostile place at the heart of her only novel. At the beginning of the story, it is a gale that traps Lockwood for the night at Wuthering Heights, where he witnesses the extraordinary visitation of Catherine Linton:

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