The coun­try­side in April

Sarah Ryan is en­tranced by spring’s ad­vanc­ing green­ery and the beauty of a car­pet of fra­grant blue­bells

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

Shoots grasp boldly up­wards, and tiny leaves quiver into the light. The woods, which have been a dull, dor­mant brown for so long, are sprung with ev­ery shade of green. This pro­fu­sion has been brew­ing for some time in closed buds and quiet seeds. It has been emerg­ing leaf by leaf and bud by bud...un­til now. I no­tice it quite sud­denly on one after­noon walk: not the in­di­vid­ual sprouts and clumps of moss, but the sim­ply abun­dant green. It is ev­ery­where, be­gin­ning a burst that will last a month.

I walk this way al­most ev­ery day, so am sur­prised at my sur­prise, but here it is. And here is April, bring­ing change which is some­how grad­ual and sud­den at once. As I walk, I imag­ine what it would be like if the leaves made a sound as they burst. How much more aware would I be of the power of a bright day or the nour­ish­ment of a week of rain? Would leaf burst pit­ter through the month or would ex­plo­sive mo­ments star­tle passers-by as hun­dreds of leaves clat­tered into the light at once? But the buds un­furl in slow si­lence. The mu­sic of the woods comes in­stead from its in­hab­i­tants who, this month and next, are in full throat. I was wo­ken this morn­ing by the robin and blackbird; the pierc­ing cheep of a wren; by great tits and chif­fchaff. A blackbird shrieks as I pass and rock­ets out of the leaf lit­ter, across the track and into a thicket of bram­bles.

Taste of the hedgerow

“With thee the bud un­folds to leaves The grass greens on the lea And flow­ers their ten­der boon re­cieves To bloom and smile with thee” John Clare, ‘The Shep­herd’s Cal­en­dar – April’

Black­berry bushes are as good for for­agers in spring as they are in au­tumn, so I fol­low the alarmed bird’s path and be­gin to poke around in the tan­gle. I can hear it rustling among the twigs, but see only flashes of shadow. Tiny buds, fronds of soft green less than half an inch long, have sprouted be­tween the thorns and leath­ery old leaves. I pluck one from the branch and pop it into my mouth. The flavour is fresh and slightly sweet. I could pick more and use them for tea, but I leave most to bloom or be nib­bled by other crea­tures. The mud un­der­foot is thick, with the con­sis­tency of clay. It clings in huge plates to the soles of my boots, and I pause to pick up a stick and scrape it away, lean­ing one handed on the rut­ted, damp bark of an old oak. As I walk out from un­der the trees, a light rain casts a gauze

across the land­scape, and drops fall softly on my face and hair. I leave my hood down.

Scent and colour

The track curls along­side the river, weav­ing be­tween oak and ash trees, whose leaves have not yet thrown off the warm pro­tec­tion of the bud. Among curl­ing roots, crowds of wood anemones lift their starry heads. Even the ag­gres­sive net­tles are pale and ten­der at their tops, ready to be gath­ered and blanched in a flash of boil­ing wa­ter. Some­one once told me that to pick a net­tle with­out gloves, you should grasp it quickly and firmly. I grabbed it hes­i­tantly and ner­vously, and got sting­ing welts and no leaves. This time, I ex­hale, then quickly pinch the plant at the top inch of the stem with fin­ger and thumb. With one pain­less tug, I snap off the new growth and drop it into a bag al­ready half full of wild gar­lic leaves, whose pun­gent aroma drifts out as soon as I open it. As I seal the bag, I catch another scent on the breeze; just as rich, but more de­light­fully fra­grant. I know what it is im­me­di­ately and step away from the path and into the scrub, be­gin­ning the hunt. Be­hind a log, only a few paces in, I find what I am

“Hang-head Blue­bell, Bending like Moses’ sis­ter over Moses, Full of a se­cret that thou dae’st not tell!” Ge­orge Mac­Don­ald

look­ing for: hun­dreds of blue­bells, their heavy per­fume as in­tense as their hue. I do not go any fur­ther, aware of their fragility, but stand awhile at the edge of the tide of per­fume and colour be­fore walk­ing back into the rain-washed air.

Left to right: Shades of green start to fill the wood­land; a blue tit among bud­ding branches; fresh rain­drops on new rose leaves; for­ag­ing among young black­berry stems.

A swathe of blue­bells calls to be en­joyed on an April walk.

n Left to right: Head­ing through the damp woods; a sprin­kling of Anemone nemorosa among roots and fallen branches; on the river­bank, a wa­ter vole sniffs the air.

Sarah Ryan grew up in the Scot­tish Borders, climb­ing trees and por­ing over wildlife books. Those habits have lit­tle changed and she still makes time daily to get out into the woods nearby, or at week­ends to ven­ture fur­ther afield. In­spi­ra­tion comes from Roger Deakin, Nan Shep­herd, Kath­leen Raine, Chris Wat­son and out­side the win­dow.

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