When I was a baby my mother, in desperation, would lovingly put me in a big, grand pram, wrapped up warm in wool and cotton, and wheel pram and me outside. Her striving for snatches of peace and hope that I (a very colicky, restless baby) would sleep was really only possible on windy days. A big pram, securely braked, positioned in a mature garden with big trees, she said, would do the job nicely, shuddering and rocking backwards and forwards in a good, stiff breeze. And I, happily content with random vibrations, would sleep or gaze about watching the movement of branches, leaves and birds. For years my mother insisted that it was the motion of the pram that was responsible for inducing sleep. But I rather think it was the sound of wind in the willows and the tumbling and hurrying of birds.
Today, living so close to the sea and the regular track of Atlantic storms means that we enjoy windy days more often than quiet ones. Many declaim weariness with blustery weather and crave the calm, noiseless days that come with high pressure weather systems. I am the opposite. Exhilarated by wind, I love the noisome battering, energetic pounding and whipping up of bird, beast, tree and sea. I love the rushing snatches of cloud, shower and rainbow, sometimes whole, often fragmented. And I love the swiftness of changes in colour and light. Glance down and you miss the show; no matter how rehearsed, it is everyday different.
When winds do pause, as they have done over the last week, this time of year, winter’s end, is marked by embalming haziness of moisture laden airs that move slowly, diffusing sun’s light in pale lemon and grey voile curtains, smoothing waves into quicksilver and opal slickness.
Across the fields grasses that have survived snows and icy grasp, have become reduced; they are shortened, not cropped, but as if their living essence has condensed and turned to the earth itself for protection and succour. What remains above ground is pale, bleached and thinned, yet still able to reflect light especially as the day darkens and the sun sinks, and, for a few short breaths, turns pinks and purple. It is as though the very ground itself was waiting for the right signal, for warmth and light, for yellowness to return, and for that special something to stimulate new growth. How is it possible that such thinness can return to such bounty? I am amazed.
Trees too are waiting. Many have already set buds; tight, sticky, colourful, vibrant, some large, others tiny; buds of black, red, purple, brown, grey, yellow; waiting for spring’s affirmation to unravel and burst open. And while trees linger patiently, their grey, green and bright white barks, knotty and swirling, moss and lichen covered, shelter other forms of life, also suspended, and waiting. On quiet days, then, across the fields and in the woods, instead of the buffeting commotion of gusts and squalls whose blasts deafen and can diminish us, comes the sense of expectation, a moment’s pause perhaps, then the uplifting songs of love: the clamour of birds.
These are hard times for feather, fur and carapace. Not for them a chair by the wood burner or a well stocked cupboard. Food is scarce. Insect life invisible. Days are lengthening but with such moisture laden airs, middle of the day brightness is flanked by surreptitious, dwindling luminosity so that hill and sky, sea and atmosphere merge in opaque and obscure diffuseness. (Oh to have the watercolourists skill!) Not for another few weeks will the certainty of food supplies be assured. Until then “wee” birds must rely on generosity of human friends and on what Mother Nature, using all her oceanic craft and blustery guile, can churn up on strandline, shore, on riverbank and ditch, hedgerow and machair. Yet in these lean times, the virtuosity and volume of birdsong is utterly undiminished, even when weather returns wildly, brutish and unforgiving! Like us, they make the most of more tranquil days, chattering and gossiping, organising each other and arranging feathers in accordance with the latest fashions. For February is the month of love; in Lupercalian heraldry robin, wren and sparrow yearn strongly for companionship and expend energies on exclaiming their readiness to build and nest, proclaiming in their finery that they are most prized among birds. Plumpness, it seems, among our smaller feathered friends, is esteemed.
The calm, quiet window has ended. Westerly and northerly winds, icy squalls and tempestuous seas have returned.
No sweet, mellow murmurations here! Starlings are hurled through the air; all their skill and energy entirely consumed in straining to fly together; up they soar, then like old, dry leaves, they are tossed across the fields; down they tumble, an airborne cascade, to find shelter among the hedges and rushes. I am out of breath watching! And while smaller birds keep to hedgerow highways, there is suddenly a flash of pale grey and rusty brown: raptors! Swiftly they circle, watching, waiting for the unwary to leave the prickly refuge.
Higher still rainbows appear and vanish in quick succession, some as mere scraps of colourful brightness, others as breathtaking, otherworldly super arcs of radiance, backed by blue-black Salvador Dali-esque deepness which heralds the oncoming snowstorms.
Temperatures plummet yet further and though talk is of spring on radio and television, winter is not quite ready to relinquish its grip. And yet, and yet, look, there are snowdrops and crocuses in bloom, shaking their vibrant petals boldy at the cold, defying winter.