February 2022: Daffodil time
Florists make great play with the old tradition of ‘birthday flowers’ so that they have something new to promote each month, but some of their monthly choices seem at odds with the actual emergence of wild flowers through the seasons. Carnations in January, for example? I look out for aconites and snowdrops then myself. But we can surely all agree that March’s flower has to be the daffodil. 1 March is officially the first day of spring, whatever the weather, and there will be plenty of daffodils already sporting their yellow glory on that date. It’s also St David’s Day and the daffodil is the national flower of Wales. I gather the Welsh name for a daffodil translates as ‘Peter’s Leek’ and the Welsh are supposed to sport both plants that day – though one imagines the daffodil might prove the more fragrant button-hole, as well as easier to attach to the lapel.
Most of our daffodils are cultivated varieties but there are still some genuinely wild daffodils in Britain, sadly now limited to relatively few sites. The wild ones are smaller and daintier than the cultivars, with a characteristic ‘two-tone’ effect of paler petals surrounding a darker yellow trumpet. They used to flourish widely in damp meadows and old woodlands, many of which have now been destroyed for ‘development’, but you can still see them at various sites in SW England and we have a wonderful display of them in one place in Suffolk – Butley Woods near Orford. The most famous wild daffodils, however, must be those in the Lake District, which were celebrated in William Wordsworth’s poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. Wordsworth was inspired to write this by a walk he took with his sister Dorothy in 1802 at Ullswater, where they delighted in the glorious profusion of daffodils along the lake shore:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in stately dance
The poem’s a national favourite, of course, but what may be less well known is that William cribbed some of his best lines from the diary notes of his sister Dorothy, who was a very good and attentive naturalist. Poetic licence? Or sexist sibling rivalry?
Matching flowers to months is becoming more difficult, though. William and Dorothy’s epiphany was in April not March, and scientists have calculated that as the climate heats up plants are now flowering 42 days earlier than the average date before 1986. Nice in a way, but this creates serious disruptions to nature’s careful synchronisation of things like the hatching of bird chicks with the emergence of caterpillars; while farmers could lose a whole crop of flowering fruit trees to a late frost. Maybe the florists will prove right and we will one day have wild carnations blooming in January, but be careful what you wish for.
6 February 2022
March 2022: Despite everything, spring!
I’m writing this on 4 March. The forecast yesterday was for a mild night with a light southerly breeze and I felt something special might be about to happen, a little annual miracle that means more to me every passing year. So I went out at first light, senses flaring and on full alert. I only had to walk a short way down the Drift before I heard it – a clear double refrain in the still morning air, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff. ‘YES’, I shouted, and punched the air like a demented football fan. The chiffchaff had returned – on exactly the same day as last year and even to the very same bush. Magic! The chiffchaff is just a tiny olive-green warbler, weighing no more than a 2p piece, but it’s always the first migrant to make the long journey back to Thurlow. I listen out for it eagerly every March and think of it surfing the green wave of spring that travels steadily north across Europe, bringing with it a new season of light, warmth and growth. Twenty years ago, the first chiffchaff would arrive here about 15 March, and forty years ago 31 March – that’s global warming for you, but the thrill has been the same each time.
This year is different in another way, though. It’s just as exciting to hear this herald of spring again, but it’s terribly poignant. The news from Ukraine is almost unbearable and other, human, migrants are streaming across Europe in despair. It will soon be the spring equinox, the moment in the year when ‘night equals day’ and the forces of darkness and light are in equilibrium. That’s a perfect metaphor for this conjunction of destruction in the human world and rebirth and renewal in nature. I had the same feeling in March 2020 when the Covid pandemic first took a grip, right at the start of one of the best springs in living memory. The spring was unstoppable then and so it will be again this year, just as the tides will rise and fall every day, regardless of human disasters. And we can find hope, beauty and consolation in these natural rhythms, of which we are an integral part, if we respond to them fully. That’s not evading the bad news but counteracting it.
You can listen to the chiffchaff’s onomatopoeic song, if you just google ‘chiffchaff song’ – there are several different recordings. Some old country names represent this as chip-chop, chit-chat, siff-siaff (Welsh) or tiuf-teuf (Irish); while the Dutch call it tjift-tjaf and the Germans zilp-zalp. Whatever the language, by the time you read this the chiffchaffs will have arrived all over Europe, with the promise of spring in their songs.
April 2022: In praise of life
One of these days we shall wake up and hear that David Attenborough has died. There will then be deep and widespread national mourning, since he has become a sort of secular saint – a new St Francis of the birds and animals. But one should praise people while they are still alive and with us, not just write solemn obituaries when they are dead, so here goes.
For years Attenborough has been our guide to the natural world – infectiously enthusiastic, knowledgeable and, what is not at all the same thing, wise. It has become a sort of televisual cliché, but now an addictive one: the camera shows us some impossibly remote and inhospitable terrain from a great height; we pick out a tiny, distant figure in the wilderness of ice, marshland or desert; the picture zooms slowly in; and there is Attenborough, spreading his arms outwards to welcome us in, swaying around somewhat erratically to emphasise his words, and telling us, almost confidentially, in that so familiar, slightly hoarse voice, ‘And here, even in these extreme conditions, there is life, abundant life, and just over here behind me is something really quite extraordinary …’ .
In his autobiography he tells the story of his first job-interview with the BBC. His interviewer recommended that he be given a job, but should on no account be allowed in front of a camera, because of his peculiar facial movements and body language. This is precisely his great charm, however. He has the priceless gift of conveying his sense of wonder and excitement about the natural world in a way we can share and can see to be genuine. He is the perfect guide and intermediary, who invites us in and then lets us see what he saw and enjoy our own reactions. So many other presenters seem over-rehearsed by comparison. They spend more time presenting themselves than the wildlife, and their flirty chit-chat and highly staged conversations just get in the way.
I once heard Attenborough give a talk. The hall was packed, of course, and at the end of his spellbinding performance the chairman invited questions. A little boy at the front shot up his hand and asked in piping tones, ‘Please, Sir, how can I be like you when I grow up?’ The audience collapsed. But the great man took him seriously and said, ‘Well, the first thing you might do is go outside in your garden and look hard at something. I mean look really closely, for a long time, and then try to draw or write down what you saw and think of some questions to ask. It may become a habit.’