A young blogger (https://youngfermanaghnaturalist.com/) asked whether spring had arrived on the croft. I wanted to answer yes, but in truth, though there are patches of spring here and there and although it is the spring equinox, we are mostly still in winter’s thrall. So I must reply to Dara and say no, not fully, spring is not here yet.
There have been many signs of winter’s decline: skylarks are singing despite the bruising gusts of noise and hail, daffodils flutter their mustard-yellow skirts and hedgerow birds sing ever louder as buffeting shower pass over the croft. A few brave bumble bees have dipped and dived in our sheltered garden and I keep a close eye on the steep banks where I know solitary bees will emerge once the ground has warmed. Beyond the Red River valley moorland and mountain tops have not yet felt even a touch of spring. The upwards sweep of land is the colour of burned toast, patchily black, brown, dun and pale ochre under crackle-dry old heather and clumps of tussock grasses, and the peaks are pasted thick with snow. New vernal green growth is a wish, for now.
Yet today is dazzle-full and flare-filled. Light is coruscating; the air is brimming with moisture and every minute drop seems to explode with billions of thermo-nuclear fusions, and my eyes are watering. Overhead bright, white clouds are galloping across a blue sky-field whipped to a fast frenzy by the high flying, jockeying winds. Atop my shed the weather-vane shoots to first the north, then south and west, and then spins frantically. The forecast is for snow and thunder but so far I see no sign of high cloud tops building.
I go down to the byre to feed the old Shetland ponies; they will continue to need an extra boost of fermenting mash until the grass begins to grow. As I open the gate they whinny with pleasure at the thought of sugary sweetness. Jobs done I head for the shore with dog. He dashes across the fields down to the river and back up to the top gate, running so fast he blurs into a black, streamlined streak with white points at each end of his body.
On the other side of the track a large area of bogland glows bloodily. Although the stems of myrtle are changing colour and sprouting with new buds the whole bog seems to be shuddering in its winter coat of russet and ruby as the wind-squalls rush over. I stop though to check a bog pool; I have to grip the fence post as yet another fiercer gust shoves me in the direction of the black water. Since the first day of March frogs have been laying spawn in the shallow pool and now it seems there are more clumps of jelly than water. In the low-angled morning brightness the masses look silvery, each egg holding a single black comma. Dog is impatient. We carry on, dog now chasing after a piece of heather he tugged free of the bog margins.
As we reach the cliff edge a gust of wind nearly knocks me off my feet. The gales started at 4.00 am with a sudden, loud thumping and clattering of roof tiles and frantic clicking of hail on window panes. They show no signs of abating and as I look out across the Inner Sound huge, glowing viridian waves are fracturing into white splinters. Curtains of foam ride the breakers below us sending cold needles of salt and grit up the path. My face is smarting and my glasses are quickly frosted. Yet among the piles of seaweed, rope, twigs and branches, and fragments of plastic small birds fly up and down in brazen disregard of the powerful gusts and stinging spray. They sing above the noise and tumult of the sea. Up they climb twirling around each other to create a helix, then just as quickly they drop down to pick at another pile of seaweed left by the waves.
The sun is brighter as we reach the sandy beach. Great rolling waves of polished jade and malachite are running straight towards us. They explode in a fury of titanium-white spume; foam is hurled across the beach quickly building towers of wobbling lather. With each blast of wind these towers themselves detonate creating hundreds of small balls that roll at high speed over the sands, losing their white sparkling brightness as they do. At the back of the beach waving marram grasses catch the now-coffee coloured froth and create castles and gates and minarets, until they too are blown completely away.
The noise is deafening. I am well wrapped up but feel the cold sneaking under my hat to bite my ears. There is no sign of spring so close to the sea. But as I clamber into the dunes the icy blasts are moderated and I pause to watch the sea from a sheltered cranny. The surface waters inshore are a deep, shining emerald colour; further out the sea is darker, in patches almost midnight blue. Then I notice shards of silver and white dropping from the sky. Gannets, diving at great speed. I am astonished that they can see fish through the tumult of the roiling sea. I watch them for a while from the shelter of my nook.
I stand up and feel the full force of the wind again. Holding my arms out I stand like a cross and let the cold pass straight through. My eyes stream and my cheeks are coated in yet more salt. I gulp big, ice-filled breaths and feel the cold enter deep into my body. It is painful. Then noise enters too; and light. After a few minutes I no longer feel any pain; I am hyper-aware of my surroundings, of things moving, and singing and breathing, of the sands below my feet and the waves pounding the beach, and the sheer volume of life and energy all around me. Is this what it means to be truly human? To recognise that you are an integral part of nature, inside a wild space? I have the sudden urge to take my warm clothes off and dash into the waves.
I laugh at the madness of that idea and shudder with cold; the magic is broken.
Now I can see that a line of grey clouds I had thought was passing south to north over the Hebrides is in fact heading to me. I try to work out how much time I have and scramble down the dunes to pick up the shore trail home. Then I know I’m in for trouble because a sudden flurry of small birds rushes past me heading inland. The bright blue sky is being replaced by a wall of indigo and jet. For a moment or two the sea is still lit by the sun and it glows like a neon sign on a dark street. Then I realise the horizon is disappearing as clouds merge with sea. As I clamber up the cliff, I am battered by the winds and struggle to pull my hood over my woolly hat. I glance west and see a gap in the clouds and realise that the worst of the weather has slid north but one, fickle and mean-spirited break-away squall is rushing straight to us, its showers steel rods, hard and near vertical, ice-cold and yowling.
Hail falls in silver columns so thick I can almost grasp hold of them. Dog’s black coat is turning white. I am sure my cheeks have been cut by sharp knives.
I really am human; frail, and unable to cope with being an integral part of a winter storm-shower in spite of what I thought and felt earlier. And yet, as I approach the croft, the hail stops, the sun comes out and my skin begins to throb and tingle.
I must be glowing, for every cell of my body feels scoured clean, ready for spring.