Just as the wind swung north with its sting of sleet and hail, the first batch of ducklings were hatched this week. It was a far from simple event! However, as winter attempted to reassert itself with some biting winds and sharp frosts, we are reminded that winter’s growl is no match for the roar of Spring.
1st April, Friday
"Penny looks up at me, hunched and quizzical,
As snow pellets and plum blossom fall.
There is nothing remotely romantic about these driven, windblown, thin needles of ice,
But I cannot escape their beauty or the assurance of life they give."
In this episode I read an extract from Simon Barnes’ wonderful book A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion.
Simon Barnes A Bad Birdwatcher's Companion: ...or a Personal introduction to Britain's 50 most obvious birds published (2005) by Short Books.
I highly recommend the Naxos unabridged audio book version of this which is read by Simon and also includes samples of each bird’s call and suitable music.
I also read a very short extract from the Norse Prose Edda written thought to have been written in the early 13th century by the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson.
I also refer to Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland which is published (2015) by Thames and Hudson.
For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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Listen to it. You can hear it. Even now under prowling skies that are heavy with the threat of winter's breath and claws. It is there, like a drumming counter-beat undergirding everything, undeniable, irrepressible.
It’s everywhere. You cannot ignore it; the deep, resonant, pounding of the music of spring. Almost imperceptible at first, on the edge of hearing, heard more in heart than in sound. First it is the trees and plants that respond. They always have the keenest of ears. Then it grows, undeniable, strong, proud. Growing in assurance, taking the lean days of thin cold rains and aching winds, between its jaws like a dog with a bone. Filling the world with such unstoppable music, calling for a dance of colour and life. Up on the hills, pulsing through the woods, pouring over the fields and misty bowls of the meadows, throbbing and writhing down each lane and hedgerow, the message of spring; a howling, tidal-wave, anthem of vitality. No wonder it made our ancestors pound drums and fire the skies with their blood, and their sex and their song. And I’ve been listening to that music of spring, submersing myself in it until it drowns out the winter of my worlds; listening until I once more feel Adam-like.
The Norse and the Anglo Saxons thought that it was the winter that was all powerful; the natural state of the cosmos. Summer transitory; a mere passing hallucinatory aberration, like a fleeting cloud passing before the moon, only for the world to return to its natural state of cold wind and frost rimed stone. Nothing could out run or out last winter. The onslaught of Vargawinter (wolf winter). The ferocious teeth of Fimbulwinter/fifelwinter (the devasting 3 year long winter of Norse eschatology) that would herald Ragnarök, the endless bleak, twilit, cold of Götterdämmerung as the gods battle to their death in the dying throes of this cold dark age.
The 13th century Norse writer of the Prose Edda, the Icelandic, Snorri Sturluson, vividly captures this imbalance between winter and the fleeting, limpid summer. When asked 'why the summer is hot and the winter cold?' The wise king Har, answers, after uttering disbelief at such a naive question,
"The father of summer is called Svasuth, who is such a gentle and delicate being that what is mild is from him called sweet.
The father of winter has two names, Vindloni and Vindsval. he is the son of Vsad and, like all his race, has an icy breath, and is of a grim and gloomy aspect."
In the light of summer's effeminacy, the eviscerating destruction of winter was the unavoidable truth of our lives. To which even heroes and gods will eventually succumb.
But they were wrong. Their bards and word-warriors needed to stand here with us, and hear what we can hear.
There is nothing more raw and fearful than springtime; a wild, unrelenting bore of energy that puts the winter to flight. Oh yes, the fields have shivered barren and desolate and rooks have fished the sodden earth in ghosting fogs that froze the bones. Oh yes, the east winds have scourged hills, bending the grasses and battering the sheltering sparrows in the hedgerows, but here it comes... the first signs, the push and thrust of green shoots; the burst of buds, green and red; outstretched pinions embracing the blustering wind.
Everything shouts, “You think winter is fearful and terrible?
Then wait till you meet SPRING!” And I’ve been listening to its music until, once more, I feel a true son of the earth.
There is nothing weak or timid about Spring. Alexandra Harris, in her study of weather in English literature and art, Weatherland, notes that Spring, in the sense we understand it, really only begins to properly appear in the literature of the mediaeval period and like the season itself, it filters only gradually in fits and starts into later Early English writings.
Although the notion of spring is much earlier, it is a foreign, Latin, introduction. The philologist, Nils Erik Enkvist has argued that within northern and western Europe, we had just two seasons - winter and summer. The introduction of Spring into English literature and, from there, into English consciousness, depended heavily on the European, particularly more southern European, imagery. It is for that reason, particularly in its artistic representation, that new images had to be created to reflect springtime agricultural activities in climate much cooler and therefore further behind the Aprils and Mays of its more southerly neighbours.
Nevertheless, it is from this, Latin influenced, southern continental source that Spring becomes associated with dreamy fields of colour, gentleness, beauty and, above all, courtly - and at times more rustic - love. Although, here too, Alexander observes the quick development of more bawdy take on springtime lovers and loving - much more reflective of the British tastes for the lewd humour and risqué ribaldry of Chaucer through to the Carry On and Confessions films and the saucy postcards of Donald Mcgill.
However, whatever the medium or theme, the idea of Spring as soft and nurturing fragile new life becomes the counterpoint to the harshness of winter and death.
And these images are difficult to shift. They are embedded deep within our culture. The main cultural spring festivals we celebrate in Britain, despite their heavy sense of commercialisation and intuitionalism, Valentine’s Day and Easter, draw on these very conceptions (love, sex, new life, fresh start of a new age and the banishment of the old). Also, these images continue to ring with our spirits because we recognise the truth in them. Who hasn't felt the loosening of the shoulder muscles under the warmth of a strong sun that climbs a harebell blue spring sky? A slackening of pace, the taking of deeper breaths, the gentle embrace of a softer kind of air?
But don't be deceived, gentleness and softness don't denote weakness. There is nothing weak about Spring. The Norse may have boasted in their winter-hardened warriors, cut and honed by the wolf-wind's teeth, battered and brutalised by bone-piercing cold and rimed with stone-shattering frost. But it is not those armies I fear or would want to be a part of. I want to be one of those warriors that puts that army to flight. That rushes unstoppable, reckless and profligate, across the hills and fields, flowing through the woods and forests, racing up the highest mountain peaks. Unquenchable, insuppressibly, undefeatable.
Life. Beautiful, uncontainable, uncontrollable, unstoppable LIFE. And all winter it was there, biding its time, waiting. Resolute, patient, knowing that winter's tyrannical grip will not last. Life will win.
Look - this week, the sharp nails of winter's grip has re-asserted itself. The wind has veered to North-East and cuts like a filleter's whetted-blade. Lambs huddle close to their mothers, the ducklings are blown around like thrown bottle-corks on the surface of the green-furrowed water. The greening sallow branches whip and snap/ Pellets of snow rattle against the blackthorn and plum blossom, tearing petals. Grass blades and green shoots, shaped like rabbits' ears and mitten soft, coated in frost rime. But there is no going back, because Spring is always stronger.
And yes there is death. Where there is life there will always be death and where there is a profusion of new life death will always follow. The attrition rate of newly hatched birds and ducklings can seem heart-breakingly high. From a hatching of 12, one or two may grow into adults. In my experience, death is much more visible in spring than winter. It can feel overwhelming, crushing this death, but life is even stronger. New life keeps coming in all its colour and beauty. If this IS a war of attrition Spring and the life it unleashes has the greater strength, resilience, perseverance and numbers. Spring is hardy, Resilient. It has to be if it is to put to flight Winter.
That music pours into the winter and darkness within and I feel spring once more burst forth. The uncertainties, the chasing haunted dreams, the search for security that chill and stultify the spirit feel the onslaught of a greater power.
I have heard Spring roar and it is fearful. And if it feels as if the world is tipping back into the chill darkness of winter again, and the world leaders and those in power tell us that this is the natural course of things, that death and brutality are always more powerful, that strength is in might and might is right; that we can expect no more than this and the monochrome universe of conflict and struggle. It's an easy story to peddle. For we have seen how powerful the father of winter is and we have tried for so long to claw our way out of his clutches.
But know this. Spring is here. And Spring is not for the faint-hearted or fearful; unleashing a great tidal wave of colour and warmth and, above all, life across the landscape. and Winter is no match for it.
I have listened to the music of spring and it roars within me in the same way that it roars down Sunrising hill and down the lanes and roads and it is fearful. And I no longer fear the future for its bleak winds are no match for the unstoppable gush of life. I understand why the Green Man was kept outside church, for he, like God, cannot be tamed and contained within any building. Blow as hard as you like wintery winds, blast you icy storms, we know your days are numbered. For we’ll always be there – not because it’s decent, or right, or nice, but because we’re ALIVE and that is the nature of living things. To burst riotous on this planet. We’ll reach out to each other, and continue to reach out, despite you; despite your words, despite your policies and covert agendas. Because that is the nature of things and we are not the children of winter, but the unbiddable energy of SPRING LIFE pulses through our bodies and will continue until we burst into bloom. We will stand tall; as tall as the elm and the ash when the sap surges and rushes.
Spring roars within and it is unconquerable. Look at the green thrusting through the browns and greys of the world and know that winter cannot contain them or us. We will meet each blustery squall with outstretched raven's wings mocking its bitter bite and soaring higher to touch the vernal sun. We have heard the music of spring and we are part of it. It bursts within our veins and we are so fearfully and magnificently HUMAN.