Back during my boat dwelling period, there was an April with heavy snow. I can’t remember exactly when the last wintery-spring happened in Stroud, but there was one not so long back. Cold springs are hard, and this one comes on the back of a bitterly cold winter in the UK coupled with hiked energy prices. The direct human suffering this causes is huge, and it’s also impacting on our polytunnel farming and thus on our supplies of fresh food.
Early spring has always been hard and unpredictable. It’s no accident that Lent falls at this time of year. In the past, people would be facing the end of their winter stores while fresh crops had yet to appear. Depending on how good the previous harvest was, and how long the winter turned out to be, this could be a very hungry time of year. There’s something to be said for making a religious virtue out of the problem of being obliged to fast.
However, this is not about needing faith in a world of uncertainty. These are problems of our making. Humans have caused a climate crisis that greatly increases this kind of unpredictable weather. Greed is why we have an energy crisis in the UK, it’s all about deliberate choices, not inexplicable acts of God. We should be able to keep people warm and fed, and yet we can’t – and at the moment that’s mostly something that we, as a country have done to ourselves. Splitting from the EU was a serious mistake and has enabled politicians who don’t seem to understand how anything works.
We aren’t set up to live like our ancestors. We don’t grow our own food, or have the means to store it. Like many people, I don’t have a garden or a cellar. Most of us rely now on complicated systems of distribution for our food. We rely on companies for our heat and light – which should be cleaner and more sustainable than burning things at home, but that’s only true if the energy companies play fair. Being in a flat, I can’t have my own wind turbine or solar panels.
I’m very much a fan of shared solutions to problems. However, that only really works when there’s kindness and benevolence in the mix. When the food growers can’t afford to heat their polytunnels, and when we’ve broken the system that brought us supplies of food from other countries, what do we do?
This spring is cold in the UK, and unkind, and we were not ready for it.
There are some plants that loom large for me in the wheel of the year. These are the ones whose timing is more predictable and seems relevant to me in terms of how I relate to the seasons.
Snowdrops are the first flowers I watch for, and celandines are the second. While crocuses and hellebores can show up in that time frame, and the first greenery starts to emerge, it’s the cheery nature of celandines that inclines me to pay particular attention to them.
Each year, the exact order of spring flowers emerging can vary – along with the elf caps, which tend to show up around now locally but overall have a much longer season. I try to be alert to how the year is unfolding specifically rather than working with generalised ideas about spring. There are always outliers and oddities – I’ve got a few elder trees putting out leaves already.
The climate crisis means that we will probably have increased unpredictability around how the seasons unfold. Plant species will adapt – or fail to adapt – in different ways. It feels important to me to be alert to what’s happening and to engage with it.
This photo shows an oak tree standing in an open field. If you look at it carefully, you can see that there’s a fattening at the tips of the twigs, and a touch of brown at the edges of the tree.
These are the emerging buds for this year’s leaves.
It can be more obvious when you see it happening in a woodland – this sudden fattening and browning that comes before the unfurling of new green leaves. That unfurling itself may be quite some time away – oaks in particular can be very late leafing. However, in the brown buds is the promise for the year ahead, and I always find that cheering to see.
It’s still very cold where I live (this tree is further north than I am.) It doesn’t really feel like spring yet, but the snowdrops are up, and the promise of spring is certainly there to be seen.
With thanks to Keith Errington for letting me use his tree photo.
Vibrant new growth photographed on a day with some sunlight. I love the colour, and the intensity of new life emerging from the soil. There were bees, but I’m not fast enough with a camera to capture and image of one, and have much the same problem taking pictures of small birds. Plants I can manage!
It wasn’t so many years ago that I used to do long walks as part of how I connected with the seasons. For the last 18 months or so I’ve been so relentlessly ill that my walking range has dramatically reduced. On a good day now I can go about a mile before I need a serious rest. That’s a hell of a lot more than many people have, and far less than I used to have.
I used to depend on the length of time I spent outside, and on the distance travelled for my feelings of connection to the wild world. I can’t do that now. I have to focus on details and in many ways that’s been good for me. I have to pay more attention and make the most of the time I get outside.
Today I saw that the garlic leaves are emerging from the soil. There are flowers on some of the wild fruit trees. I saw dogs’ mercury, which also has flowers on it. The small birds are very active, and there were also a few crows around where I am not used to seeing crows, so that was interesting. I also saw a heron in flight.
I’m fortunate in where I live. There are trees, fields and waterways right on my doorstep. I don’t have to be able to walk far to encounter some other living being.
Here in the UK, snowdrops are strongly associated with Imbolc. I saw my first flowers a few days ago, where they have emerged through last year’s dead leaves. A perfect visual metaphor for the year turning.
It’s also a time of year when locally, the elf caps tend to appear, and I’ve seen a few of those in recent days.
Spring also means catkins. Some are open now, but some, like these, are not.
There was one spring, more than twenty years ago when I remember the leaves not coming out until Beltain. This year, the spring in the UK has been unusually cold. Some of the trees have leaves, some are starting to open, but there are a lot of bare branches out there. It still doesn’t feel like we’re easing into the warmth and bounty of summer.
A certain amount of variation is normal and natural, but this cold, and this late greening feels like climate change. The unpredictability of the weather makes it hard for everything – me included to adapt.
Some time ago I made the decision that I would do my best to love the natural world in an open-hearted way, regardless of the impact of climate chaos. That I would try to embrace and love as much as I can. I find the absence of leaves, the lateness of leaves really hard. But, I can celebrate the ones that are already here, and I have felt their presence keenly.
I note that in the wooded places, the undergrowth is unusually verdant. The jack in the hedge is really tall, the nettles are flourishing and the garlic is prolific. There’s a lot more happening at ground level than happens most years. This may well be a consequence of the late leaves. In the absence of one kind of greening, we get more of another. What that means is hard to say.
How spring plays out in terms of wildflowers varies a lot from year to year and from place to place. This year, the celandines and violets have appeared in remarkable profusion around my home, and I’m still seeing a lot of them. Fruit trees have been abundant with flowers as well. I don’t have a fantastic visual memory but even so I’m confident I’ve seen more flowers on blackthorn and soft fruiting trees than I normally would. However, I hear from friends that their apple flowers locally are late.
In the last week I’ve seen my first buttercups and cowslips of the season. I’m watching for the kingcups, but I’ve not seen any of those yet. Soon, it will be time to go looking for orchids. Last year I only found one bee orchid, which was an unusually low number.
There must be a lot of variables impacting on plants. How the winter went, what the spring temperatures are like, how much rain there is – and different plants are all adapted to thrive in slightly different conditions. Sometimes, if you know a plant well you might have a sense for how it will respond to the conditions as a year unfolds. I don’t have that depth of connection and am generally surprised.
I watch with interest to see what flowers when, and enjoy watching for new plants as the year progresses. The cleavers seem to be doing really well this year, and the garlic is growing large and lush. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get onto the hilltops for the bluebells and wood anemones, but remain hopeful.
Cowslips are especially significant for me, because they were rare when I was a child. A plant pushed to the edge, they have somehow made a comeback during my life and as such are a symbol of hope, to me.
This is a wild plum that grows on the cycle path near my home. It’s a beautiful tree, and one of the first trees in the area to blossom in early spring. The plums that come from it are very small and tart, and I usually manage to eat one or two in the autumn.
Seeing this tree flower always lifts my spirits. It’s an important marker of the turning year, for me.
The odds are that the tree was planted by someone throwing away a plum stone. Fruit trees are generally propagated via cuttings and grafting because that’s the only way to guarantee what the fruit will be like. Anything that grows from a seed is unpredictable. Even if the fruit it came from wasn’t wild, I think the resulting tree always is, because it wasn’t created by human intent.
Last weekend it was definitely winter – cold, grey and a bit grim. Spring arrived suddenly, having flirted with us a few weeks ago, it has now moved in. The light is brighter, the air is warmer and the birds are much more active.
I’m especially noticing the woodpecker calls. I haven’t seen the woodpeckers themselves yet, but no doubt will. Last year, a pair nested somewhere near the flat and their calls were a constant presence through the summer months. I suspect they are going to do that again this year.
For a week or so now I’ve been really conscious of the growing length of the day. I’m waking earlier as a consequence. This is the first winter in many years where I’ve not been following clock time and have not had an alarm to wake me. I’ve always hated having to get up in the dark. Rising with the light has been so much more comfortable. Now, as we move into spring, the light comes earlier.
I hope that as we move into the lighter part of the year I will be able to keep rising with the light. I love walking in the early morning in summer. Much depends on whether I can then nap later in the day as I really don’t do well with reduced sleep and this is always a problem for me in the summer.
The most comfortable times of the year for me are spring and autumn, when the temperature doesn’t mess with my body, and the balance of light and dark best suits how I sleep. It’s a good feeling, moving into those weeks when I’ll genuinely feel in harmony with the natural world, rather than having to work out how to cope with it.