Heat. Real heat. Not the usual Highland snatch of sunny warmth and hazy dampness where we still need to seek a secluded spot to shelter from a cool sea breeze, but authentic summer-hot, dust-dry heat. It arrived almost instantaneously, within a matter of hours or so it seemed, chasing after the swallows all the way from Africa. This continental air was filled with aromas; dry, red earth and Mediterranean lemons, scooped up by hot winds sailing north.
Just over a fortnight ago, still hatted and gloved, I had spotted a lone swallow flying low along the shore. But very quickly, not long after the first cuckoo calls echoed about the croft, chitter-chattering groups of swallows and sand martins began to fill the spaces over the fields, swooping and diving in exhilarating flashes of cream and jet. They are hard to follow when they fly so low but how they delight with their daredevil-may-care aerobatics.
The timing of their arrival was little short of astonishing. I had feared for that first swallow. Then the air was still ice-cold; there were few insects about on the croft fields though bees were noisily enjoying spring flowers in the garden. Yet along the shore, where big rolling waves had dumped the debris from Neptune’s spring clean, insects were more plentiful and their numbers were growing quickly. Rock pipits and wrens competed with oyster catchers and curlews for tiny flies on the kelp and dabberlocks or for sand-hoppers jumping around the retreating waves. And so the lone swallow, skimming the ozone and salt spray, was able to feed.
But as soon as temperatures rose the ground warmed quickly and within hours the fields were shimmering with diaphanous wings of lace and sparkle. Rising like steam from a hot bath insects filled the hollows and ditches and then spread across the newly harrowed ground. All along the river banks courtship and dancing began to the music of larks. The jumble of rocks, pebbles, river silts and new growth of willow, hazel and myrtle make for complex and intricate micro-habitats and the display of newly emerging insects was dazzling. Heat and light are a magical combination. Even though the signs of spring have been all around us this sudden bursting of life from every possible pore and space in the earth was wondrous. Even though I knew it was coming, this sheer abundance felt more like an uprising, no, a detonation.
In the early dawns of these first hot days cooling moisture kissed the ground and new leaves blushed with a damp sheen. Vapours rose again as the soil yielded its water to the atmosphere but with each consecutive day of heat there was less and less wetness, and after a few days even the shadiest places begin to feel dry. As each day unfolded the air had a discernible taste: marzipan, coconut and lemon sherbet. And scents more vivid than a Parisian perfumery: juniper, pine and myrtle. A heady, intoxicating mix of sensory delights that normally dribble in and out of one’s consciousness across the summer months, was brought forth in this one spring week. The magic of it all is almost madness. Woven in and out of the tapestry of scent and taste was a deepening yellowness. With the sweetness of custard and the zest of freshly squeezed lemons cowslips and primroses appeared on the upper fields and magically, on the river bank beside an old birch, shy celandines peeped through remnant bracken fronds, reminders of the woodlands that once stood here. In some of the ditches and less well-drained hollows the bright, butter-yellow flowers of marsh marigolds opened, shining like a glut of miniature suns in a newly discovered galaxy.
And dense once-scrubby patches of gorse burst into hot yellow flame with rich, thick and tight scented exuberance. Sometimes they smell of coconut sun cream, of a Mediterranean beach in full summer; then the scent can be like newly rolled out marzipan, ready to cover a Christmas cake. Flitting in and out of the flowers and avoiding the hidden thorns many little birds rushed back and forth to feed their young. What a delightfully decorated nursery for bringing up babies!
As the hot week passed, the fields began to change from yellow to bright, sharp green. Now at last the grass is growing, and it is growing fast. On the trees, buds once tightly furled are opening and waving at the sun. Even the oak leaves have begun to unwind. Last year they were very late, not opening until the end of July, for our late spring and summer were cold and wet. Larch are dressed in green tufts, birch have abandoned winter purple and clothed their branches in delicate lime green leaves of finest tissue paper and the leafy fingers of mountain ash daintily ripple and billow.
Spring-summer, spring-summer is the clarion call of the land itself. “Spring,” sing the larks! “Summer,” croon the blackbirds!
But wait. The wind has changed. It has turned back to the west. Winter has not finished with us yet. The sea and sky have disappeared behind a single sheet of dulled steel, grey and forbidding. “Do not worry,” sing the cuckoos and song thrushes, “it is just rain to quench our thirst and help the greening of things.”
Which is just as it should be.