The countryside in April
Sarah Ryan is entranced by spring’s advancing greenery and the beauty of a carpet of fragrant bluebells
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.