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 lossEmily Dickinson
Affecting our content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
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.
I would like to draw together two very different winter journeys to introduce January. The first is a description at the beginning of Robert McFarlane’s 2012 book The Old Ways:
On New Year’s Eve 1900, Thomas Hardy, a natural pessimist, wrote a poem hinting at the restorative powers of nature; I think it is worth quoting The Darkling Thrush in full:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A wood in autumn can be like a place of burial, the leaves closing in as they fall and the mulch of leaf decay beneath one’s feet. The feeling that dusk is getting nearer as time passes. A melancholy, yet varied landscape filled with experience of a turning year. The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote of the bitter-sweet sensuality of the season in a letter to Cezanne:
As I look at the sky at the beginning of September I notice something special in its light, a clear blue freshness.There is a new clarity in the air, which is in tune with the turning of the season and the slight chill in the early morning and at twilight. At sunset it is almost as if the golden light has been captured by the trees and clings to them, radiating a warm, weird glory. A couple of days after Keats composed his ode To Autumn he wrote a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds: