Wood sorrel, buttercups, blackberries, holly. Shoots, flowers, seed-heads, dead stalks. Buds, leaves, blossom, bare bark. Seasons keeps our feelings and memories ebbing and flowing like the sea. Every year is different from the last, yet all roll on forever with their endless rhythm.
In the greek myth explaining how the seasons came to be, Demeter rejoices every year that her daughter is returning to her, and it is her joy which makes the buds and flowers of Spring. Every year when Persephone leaves again Demeter’s sorrow makes the plants die. Then her daughter returns once more and they spring up again.
It always feels as if the seasons do echo our emotions, as if our joys really do cause the spring flowers and our sorrows the grey skies and brittle dead stalks of winter. The seasons are so special because they hold our emotions, mix them sweetly and painfully with the natural world.
And what makes the roll of the year still more complex and necessary is the way they connect us with one another. We know that our delight in a Spring day is shared with hundreds and hundreds of others – people from future past and present, people who have lived, do live, and will live.
Some things change over time, but some things stay the same. A sprig of meadowsweet smells the same to the person who walks in their white plimsols past the dishwasher and down the tarmac path to go pick it and stick it in the zip of their plastic raincoat as it does to the person who walks in deerskins shoes through the doorway of their hut, crashes through a bank of nettles and loops the sprig through a hole in their woollen cloak.
January and February – The Flower Crown
Year after year, I’ve scrawled in the bottom of my Christmas list
Snow. Bring snow this year.’
A hopeless request. December always seems to pass in grey skies, cold air, and light drizzle. If snow comes at all, it usually hits in January. In the early weeks of the New Year we quite often have snow.
I remember on day, years ago, when my brother dared me to run down to the snowy lawn naked.
My feet left clear imprints in the carpet of snow. Everywhere air and light has a glittering edge as I ran, laughing. Glitter and sparkle filled the crisp air as I looked up in the reaching white branches of the giant copper beech and the bottom of my garden, and ran back indoors.
After the snow thaws come the first flowers – the shy, tearful flowers of early Spring. Beside the sleeping meadow the snowdrop patch stirs into life, forming drooping white buds that show soft cracks, opening slowly into white skirts with hidden green petticoats. In the back-garden the green hellebores are beaded with melting frost in the fragile sunlight, and in a dark corner of the garden the yellow sprays of sweet-scented mahonia come out among the dark gloss of their dangerous leaves. Water beads up on the shiny surfaces of the leaves and drips from the spikes, feeling almost warm as it falls on my frozen hands.
It was now early spring… The vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations, where everything seems helpless and still after the bond and slavery of frost, there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls-all-together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pigmy efforts.
Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd
My birthday is in January. I once said I wanted a flower-crown to wear. I am Maid Marion at heart and I love flower-crowns. But it was a hard thing to ask, in early January of all times. Undaunted, my mother searched the flower-beds relentlessly for any scraps of Spring. When the crown was finished it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Evergreen foliage of green and silver, shining and starry and still damp with dew was carefully twisted and arranged, and decorated all round with big sprays of mahonia. A single hellebore bud, the first out that year, was fastened into the centre to droop over my forehead like a green jewel.
Every flower that opens in January or February is like a dropping tear or a single second of time – a very small thing to be greatly, greatly treasured. Snow and frost melt in the yellow, easily shattered light. Someone smiles at you while you are crying and you smile back at them through your tears.
Like souls that balance joy and pain,
With tears and smiles from heaven again
The maiden Spring upon the plain
Came in a sunlit fall of rain.
In crystal vapor everywhere
Blue isles of heaven laugh’d between,
And far, in forest-deeps unseen,
The topmost elm-tree gather’d green
From draughts of balmy air.
March and April – The Easter Tree
It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.
There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.
My sister! (’tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done,
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.
Edward will come with you—and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar:
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year.
Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
—It is the hour of feeling.
One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey:
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.
Then come, my Sister! come, I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
If I could single one poem out above all others as my favourite it might be Wordsworth’sTo My Sister. It’s been the early custom in our family almost as long as I can remember to read To My Sister on the first mild day of March. After that, with the verses still reciting themselves inside our heads, we always go for a walk up the lane to see the crocuses come up in the neighbouring gardens – me, my two younger brothers and my mum. We live on a quiet road with a brick pavement that always looks rich and red in the early Spring light. The houses are all made of brick, too, with small lawns edged with tidy privet and beech hedges, very different from our rambling garden. Crocuses purple, yellow and white shoot up in luscious clusters, their shining cups filling with slanting sunlight. The red and yellow stamen tongues lick out, casting shadows on the thin petals, patterned with delicate veins.
We each pick a favourite colour crocus, and my brother pesters me to follow him and take the secret shortcut back to the garden. He pulls me in behind the trees and bushes that edge the lane and we hack a tunnel through the undergrowth, being careful not to damage the bare rose briars. Then we climb over the wall onto the roof of our old stone shed, which in easily accessed this way, and spread ourselves on the lichened roof, sunning like butterflies.
Sometimes I think that if I was only aloud a memory of one day from my whole life, it would be this ‘first mild day of March’, this ‘hour of feeling’.
Back down in the garden a few pinky buds are forming on the giant copper beech. As the year creeps on, the daffodil and narcissus patch down in the corner of the lawn bursts out, the yellow flowers swaying in the cold March breeze. Behind the daffodil patch stands the pussy willow, and soon the little grey velvet catkins come, their softness more like the softness of clouds at evening than like any earthly softness. Day after day I watch the tree anxiously, seeing the grey buds burst into yellow pollen brushes, hoping they won’t have gone over by Easter.
At last Easter does come, and just in time, for the catkins are beginning to blow down into the waste of last year’s leaves heaped behind the tree. Easter Day itself is not your typical spring day. The air is warm, but a cold wind is blowing gustily, dashing flurries of rain into eyes. The rain comes in a fine mist hiding everything, and I can hardly see in front of me as I set off to climb the pussy willow and bring down a branch of catkins for our Easter tree. I pick my way carefully through the tangled daffodils towards the tree. It’s tricky getting up. I grab the lowest branch and kick, scrabbling with me feet, my hands sore with holding on. Finally I get my knees on the branch and pull myself up, ducking between the bare branches, the wind lodging catkins in my wet, tangled hair. Up and up. Up and up. A sudden huge blast set the tree swaying like a topmast in a storm.
With the big branches in my arms, I run indoors into the warmth and light. The whole family joins in decorating the Easter tree. We tie blue and yellow ribbons onto the branches, and attach handmade egg decorations while outside the rain trickles down the window.
Later in the day, it cheers up. Sunlight comes, making everything shine. Wet leaves blink in the light. The drops on the window flash. The air tickles and glistens with a fine mist of golden rain. The wind drops, leaving the garden strangely silent. The faint traces of a rainbow arches over the house.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling…
Gerald Manley Hopkins
We troop into the garden, hoping the hunt won’t have been ruined by the rain, and me and my brothers run at full tilt down the lawn, our eyes flicking everywhere over the shining leaves, hoping to see the sodden wrapping of an Easter egg peeping from underneath.
May and June – The Cherry Trees
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
I think my idea of May Day is really taken from John Collier’s painting, Queen Guinevere’s Maying. Several May Days ago I had a go at re-creating the painting –
As in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ‘ideal and real clashed slightly’.
…all dressed in white gowns — a gay survival from Old Style days, when cheerfulness and May-time were synonyms… Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges and creeper-laced house-fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them… In addition to the distinction of a white frock, every woman and girl carried in her right hand a peeled willow wand, and in her left a bunch of white flowers. The peeling of the former, and the selection of the latter, had been an operation of personal care.
Whereas Birthdays are celebrations of individuality, these oldest of celebrations are a subordination of personal particularities, our uniquenesses, to what we have in common. Nature brings us together, cancels social and cultural and historical differences – the white of a peeled willow wand is nothing personal, though we pour our personal care into such uniting traditions.
Seasonal celebrations are things we share not only with other people alive today but with the past and the future. Not all the seasonal celebrations we keep now seem ancient, but, in fact, they all date back to before Christianity.
Easter is now a Christian festival, but the resurrections isn’t all we celebrate. Early spring was the perfect time to celebrate the Resurrection because it is a time when everything is reborn. The green shoots that have been springing up since January begin to burst into leaf and flower. The sunlight strengthens, the day lengthen. The buds plump. The yellow catkins droop like slanting rain caught by sunlight. The Romans celebrated the festival of Floralia, held on April 27th in honour of the flower goddess, Flora, and the Celts welcomed Spring with Beltane, the Celtic May Day.
Halloween was once Samhain. Samhain marked, as Halloween does still, the dying of light, the turn of the year into darkness. It was a day of ghosts. Autumn is the season of ghosts, because it’s in Autumn that memories of past years come flooding back, smelt in the cold air, felt in the light touch of the down-fluttering leaf, seen in the dusty low light.
Christmas was once Yule. There has always been a festival in December because we need it to cheer us up. It is then that Winter falls full upon us. The sweet golden sadness of Autumn turns to ice – the sky is steely and grey, the mornings are full of drizzly rain, the fallen leaves loose their bright golds and reds and turn into a sodden black mush to be stomped through. We need bright licking firelight and the tough, glossy gleam of holly to keep us plodding on till the Resurrection comes again.
The seasons were known in Celtic times as the ‘Wheel of the Year’. It is strange that, not knowing about the turn of the Earth, they chose such a metaphor. The seasons have always turned, and they will continue to turn
Until the axle break
That keeps the stars in their round
And hands hurl in the deep
The banners of East and West
And the girdle of light is unbound