12 April 2013

Merrie England - Part Three

Spring Watch

April 7th.  The road is blocked with snow.  It is cold and dull and winter has not yet given way.  A week after Easter and we are looking for signs of rebirth, regeneration, new life.  I have to say that England does not look very Merrie....

It is April. Where is the warmth of Spring? What is this never-ending winter? We withdraw from the drifted snow that blocks our way and find another route. But everywhere seems lifeless and cold. Is the world coming to an end?

We find an Inn, check in for the night and take a walk, and examine the prospects of a world in a coma. Little by little signs of life appear. It's not so much that it is cold, though the unseasonal temperatures have kept life safe in dormancy, it is more that it is dull. Where is the fresh light and the blue sky that cheers so much after the drear of winter?

There is a chill in the land, and it is hard to believe that Easter, with its resurrective spirit, is a week behind us already. It is hard to believe that the clocks have changed. The valley seems dreich (to borrow the Scots' favourite word) and I just want to curl up and sleep.

But in fact the land is slowly coming back to life.  Trees are beginning to show their buds and flowers are managing to blossom.  

There is a lot going on.  Lambs, the symbol of many things, are stumbling into life.  I am reminded of an Easter in the Peloponnese years ago, taking a bus on Good Friday, and finding the luggage racks full of loosely wrapped carcasses of lambs, tears of blood trickling from their open necks.  The sacrifice of new born flesh being one of the most primitive rituals of man, but the taste of spit-roast meat with marjoram and fresh bread takes some beating.

But eggs are another potent symbol of rebirth and it is the bird song I notice next. Rarely heard from within the confines of a car, walking in an otherwise silent valley I find I am tuned in to the chattering and chirruping of tiny souls.  There is a proud Great Tit, boldly atop a bush, vigorously practising his characteristic two tone call. Then a happy refrain above me catches my ear, and I search the trees to catch a glimpse of a cock chaffinch, whistling in cheerful territorial claim, or to attract his mate.

Twitching about on the ground, rustling under leaves and pecking at the moss, a busy Dunnock catches my eye, foraging for insects and spiders to keep his strength up and perhaps even to feed his young.

Not far away twiggy nests still stand out in leafless trees, soon to be camouflaged by expected growth.  There is a lot going on, and the longer days help birds enormously as their need to feed their families increases.  The cold winter has been hard on them, and the extra weeks will have exhausted many, but there is no mistaking the sound of Spring in the songs of the survivors.

We move on.  It's not quite the joyous riot of Spring I had hoped for, especially having just got back from being screamed at by swifts on a beach in sunny Sicily, where the roadside verges are amok with flowers, but the evidence is there.  Slowly but surely we are emerging from our torpor.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.

The celebration of a family 21st birthday, another rite of passage, takes us on to Liverpool.  I was not expecting Spring to be much further advanced here amid the walls and the roads, but I am in for a surprise.  The warmth of Liverpool is not just in the ocean tides.  The spirit is welcoming, and generous, and despite the litter that blusters around the waste patches, and the houses that have seen many better days, there is a colourfulness about the ambience and about the people, and, like the birds, there is an excited business of preparation for new life apparent.

There is sufficient sun to bring people, and their pets, out onto the streets, out of the confines of the winter home and into the public world.

And people are busy with decoration, either painting or planting, outside their homes.

I find myself in a pub, joining in the craic with two gentlemen of substance.  Mr Sixteen-and-a-Half Stone is telling his elder, Mr Twenty Stone and Rising, about his diet.  "They weighed me, like, and I was 16 and a half stone, which for a man of my height is too much."  We nod.  "So I'm on a diet - I was eating six, seven pieces of bread....  And I'm swimmin', go to the gym - but not the heavy things, just the light exercise to start with."

"It's the food," interjects Mr Twenty, taking a draft from his pint.

"It's self-discipline," I add.

"An I got a bike.  Not goin' to use the car.  Want to lose some of this before the sun comes out!"  Mr Sixteen-and-a-Half wobbles his tummy.

"Walking is good,"  I suggest.

"It's the food," Mr Twenty repeats, quaffing another draft of ale.  This seems to cause some thought, just as Mr Fourteen Stone joins us.  

"I'm givin' up my diet," he offers, cheerily, ordering a pint.  "It didn't werk.  Potatoes, bread, butter, milk, sugar.  Jest didn't werk! I'm back on the fresh fruit and veg, me!"

We sail on, reinventing ourselves, reconstructing, resurrecting our images.  I come home to find a blackbird singing his heart out in my cherry tree, the buds just forming ready to foam in celebration of the light and warmth.  The fluting song, and the waving daffodils in the evening light seem good to me.  It has been a long winter, but the world keeps on turning.  For now, at least.

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world

And should you wish to hear the chaffinch (pictured above) - you won't see him here, but you can (just) hear him....

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