The countryside in... February
Sarah Ryan is noticing seasonal changes and taking a closer look at winter wildfowl on a waterside path
THOUGH THE AIR is cold and the trees bare, there are signs of spring at ground level. A troupe of narcissi has sprung up below the window, their yellow petals and rich orange cup a sunny contrast to the blue-painted windowsill.
Narrow, folded crocus buds sprout between patches of frost, which linger in the flower beds and sparkle where the sunlight hits them. Under the shrubs, the frozen ground glimmers, protected by the cool shade.
John Clare, ‘The Shepherds Calendar – February – A Thaw’
I leave dark footprints on the icy path as I walk through the park to the lake, my boots crushing the delicate, thin layer of crunchy frost to the earth beneath.
Displays on the water
The lake is greyish-blue; smudged and glassy like breath on a mirror. A couple of swans drift along, heads curved into an elegant bow. A few other dark specks float in the haze, so I pop the caps off my binoculars and lift them to my eyes. I have to pull off my mittens to adjust the focus, and the warm humidity of the wool lingers for barely a moment before the cool wind touches my skin.
Among the wildfowl, I am hoping to spot a goldeneye. The drakes at this time of year look particularly dapper in their black and white breeding dress, with a sheen of green or purple gleaming over the head and a crisp white circular spot between the bill and yellow eye.
It is time for their mating display. This starts with a kind of bobbing of the head, thrusting forward and up before being flung back, suddenly and dramatically; bill agape towards the sky; head flat against the tail.
Twisting the blurred image into view, I make out Mallard, Gadwall and also Tufted ducks, with their floppy crest and butter-yellow eyes.
There are geese too. These are mostly Greylag and Canada, and maybe even some Pink-footed geese, but it is hard to tell. Lowering the binoculars, I scan the horizon more generally, letting my vision relax to take in the whole wide view without looking for anything in particular now.
“Thus nature of the spring will dream While south winds thaw but soon again Frost breaths upon the stiffening stream And numbs it into ice”
Wandering on past the lake and into the woods, I come across large gatherings of snowdrops; their petals an impossibly clean and pure white. There are winter aconites too, with bright yellow petals and their anthers surrounded by a large, leafy ruff.
“February brings the rain, Thaws the frozen lake again”
Sara Coleridge, ‘The Garden Year’
As I walk, the temperature drops, and soon, fat wet snowflakes fall from the sky, landing in damp patches on the path. The light fades to a kind of illuminated grey, smelling of ice, as I turn for home.
Back indoors, I kneel in front of the stove, and I lay a grid of kindling on a soft bed of ash. Then I crumple some newspaper and shredded card in the centre, and balance a small log on top. With a quick flash and the sudden smell of sulphur dioxide, the match cracks into a bright flame.
I reach carefully into the stove and lean the match against a shred of paper, which blackens, shrivels and glows red at its crumbling edge before the flame takes and flickers across the page. Crouching at the open door of the stove, I wait for the kindling to catch. I am mesmerised by the movement of the fire and the flames that lick at the sticks.
When it is hot, I blow a long, steady puff of air into the embers, and the flames leap up. I close the door, slide open the vent and retreat to the sofa with a woollen blanket and a book: the latter lies unopened on the carpet as I watch the fire’s bright dance. Outside, the damp snow is beginning to turn to rain.