Light of spring
WE are now in that stage of winter when glimmers of the new season bring hope to the watchful and lift the spirits. Unlike the political landscape, now so full of uncertainty, the countryside is quietly stirring as it always does at this time, making its reassuring moves towards spring.
Look at the trees and it might not be apparent; the ash with its stiff, bare bones tipped with sooty-black hoofs remains firmly in winter mode and the oak’s tight fists of clustered buds will take many more weeks to be persuaded to unfurl. Neither shows signs of the sap stirring deep within, yet there are clues everywhere of Nature’s reawakening.
Great tits have been singing lustily since Christmas and the woodpecker’s hammerings can be heard across spinney and field. Traveller’s joy, the wild clematis of chalkland, still casts its iron-grey clouds over the hedgerows, but look closer: its diminutive green shoots are impatient to get on with the business of growing.
Gardeners are already alert to the change, seeing new blades in the grass and the snouts of crocuses, snowdrops and early daffodils. Snowdrops, particularly, have found their way into the nation’s hearts. Although they’re not native to these islands (their origins are in the Levant), their white carpets have been spreading through our woodlands long enough for us to feel unanimously cheered by their doughty presence in the bleakness of February.
For Mary Robinson, the 18th-century actress and poet, the snowdrop was ‘Winter’s timid child …bedew’d with tears’, flinging around its mild fragrance ‘Amidst the bare and chilling gloom’. For Wordsworth, a generation on, the snowdrop was the ‘venturous harbinger of spring’, fastening its place ever more securely in our affections as the 19th century progressed. Now, in the 21st, ‘snowdrop time’ is a moment of nationwide celebration with numerous festivals and garden openings dedicated to its shyly pendent blooms (Town & Country, page 22).
For many of the gardens involved, visitors coming to see their snowdrop displays will help to raise funds for something worthy, whether it is the church roof, the local hospice or a national charity. In this respect, the National Gardens Scheme (www.ngs.org.uk), such a joyous feature of summer, with its thousands of Sunday-afternoon opportunities for garden envy, is suddenly a leading winter player.
This is only its second year of a formally organised, month-long snowdrop festival across England and Wales, but more than 80 gardens will be taking part to help the charity, which celebrates its 90th anniversary with a re-branding this spring and numerous events throughout 2017. Today, the NGS is the most significant charitable funder of nursing and palliative care in Britain, having distributed more than £45 million so far, with just under £3 million of it having been raised last year. So, let’s enjoy the snowdrops. Mary Robinson’s ‘beauteous gem’ is also unexpectedly bounteous.