The Fields in April

Rebecca Welshman

 

The last few days here in Cumbria have seen the return of the swallows to the barns adjacent to the house. On the evening of 24th April, after a few days of warm sunshine, there was a heavy snowfall, and it felt like winter once more. This sudden cold spell at the end of the month brought to mind Jefferies’ nature notes from 1881, written when he lived in Surbiton. In 1881 the earth was dry, and the growth of foliage slow. There was a bitter east wind, and Jefferies notes that at the end of the month it still did not quite feel like spring.

oak in April

April 1881

 

“A slight shower fell on the ninth of April, at last breaking the continuity of dry weather which had endured for weeks. The earth became so hard that in the arable fields men were employed to break the clods with the backs of old axes. Growth, if it went on at all, had been so very slow that the appearance of the Surrey fields in the second week of April was almost exactly what it was a month before. There was no more green—the surface remained dry, brown, and bare. The grass had hardly grown at all. There is little for the herds which must soon come out from the yards; and, unless rapid progress is now made the hay harvest will be late. It is usually said that it is better for such growths to be kept back than to be too forward; but they may be kept back too long; it is questionable if checking weather is ever of advan­tage to agriculture. Neither long drought, nor long-continued rain, nor frost, nor sunshine, suits us. Variety and change are best: the more especially since crops have become so complex.

North-east wind, blue sky, and sunshine produce a distinct atmosphere of their own. It is not exactly haze or mist; but there is a peculiar translucent vapour about trees and distant objects while the east wind blows under bright sunshine. It is as if the air were glazed—as if it had a smooth, dry, polished surface. Leafless trees and hedges, bare fields, and silent birds—not even the thrushes singing—contrasted in a singular manner with all that is seen and heard under a rich blue sky and a glowing sun.”

 

Jefferies’ observations of the dryness of the air and the particular atmosphere of early spring remind me of a recent visit to Orton Moors when the air was cold and the sunshine bright. We walked into a strong Westerly wind, and the ground was hard and dry. Even shallow stream beds, which had been wet all through the autumn and winter, had dried into flaking mosaics of mud. This photo is looking eastwards from Orton Moor, over Sunbiggin Tarn, where in the evenings giant flocks of starlings make dark patterns over the water:

orton moors April 2017

Jefferies’ observations for March and April continue thus:

“In the second week of March, there were sprays of haw­thorn out in leaf in warm corners. On the 10th of April, a month later, precisely the same thing might have been said. There were the hawthorn leaves out in places, but the hedges at large were still bare, the trees leafless, and the grass equally short. But signs appeared from time to time of the irresistible march of the days: the sun, rising higher, forced progress in spite of all. On the 12th of March the hedge-sparrows were hawking from the tops of the hedges, flying up and seizing insects—showing that insect-life was already teeming. The wood-pigeons called in the copse as late in the evening as half-past seven, by moonlight. In waste places the little chickweed-flowers came out, and in orchards the daffodils were almost open. A larch showed green buds on the 14th: the larch, which looks almost dead and dry during the winter, is one of the most interesting trees to watch in spring—its aspect changes so delicately. A yellow-hammer was singing on the topmost branch of a young oak on the 16th. The lesser celandine flowered on the moist ground in a withy-bed, between the scanty stoles; and in the wet furrows the marsh-marigold stalks were up. The ditches, where there was any running water, were now brown at the bottom, instead of clear as they had been previously. A brown butterfly was seen on the 18th. By the 20th the reddish flowers of the elm were so thick as to partly conceal the nests of the rooks in the upper branches. The sheaths had fallen from the buds of a horse-chestnut tree on the 21st; but the buds were not open. A spray of briar was in leaf on the 23rd and a burdock had risen about eight inches; but it grew no higher for a long while. A chiff-chaff, first of the spring migrants, called in the copse on the 26th despite the wind. By the 5th of April there was just the faintest green upon the boughs of the pollard willows: a green visible from a distance where the boughs were seen in the mass, but almost disap­pearing upon approaching. Walking across an arable field it was pleasant to see the light-blue flowers of grey speedwell among the rising clover. A bunch of red dead-nettle had evidently been in flower some time. On the 10th of April a tree-pipit sang, descending to a branch of elm: a willow wren was heard; and a white butterfly appeared. Hazel-buds were half open, but there were no leaves yet. On the next day a slight shower fell and the wind turned and came from the south. The effect was wonderful: in two days the hedges became green—quite green where before they had been’ bare; horse-chestnut leaves came out, sycamore buds opened, the grass took a fresh tint, and the sweet notes of blackbirds came from the trees. The delicate white petals of stitchwort appeared on the 14th; only four days before, on the 10th there was no sign of the flower opening, so quickly had the warm wind brought everything forward. On the 14th, too, some of the birches were slightly tinted with green, and a few leaves had come out on the lower branches of elms. Hedge-mustard had now risen high, though not in flower; hedge-parsley and white dead-nettle flowered. Blackthorn was in flower—a white spot in the middle of a low cropped hedge about an arable field recently rolled and bare of green. This bareness rendered the blackthorn bloom the more attractive. The same morning a nightingale was heard for the first time this season, in the same hedge where the first was heard last year.”

Here in Cumbria I have noticed the return of the birds. The Song Thrush was one of the first to sing, and the grey wagtails have returned to the beck. Swallows have been darting over the fields, and a pair of jackdaws have begun building a nest in the barn – taking straggly pieces of hay from the dungheap and flying with them up to the barn roof.

the_danes_brook1

Jefferies writes that “The 15th, Good Friday, was a most lovely day—a true spring day. Marsh-marigold was in flower, and the sedges between the stoles of withy beside the brook were tipped with this dark-brown, almost black, flower. Brown, unwholesome-looking horsetails had risen in the fields; on dry banks ground-ivy flowered. A wryneck was heard and seen on the 16th. A sycamore in flower was frequented by bees, whose humming seemed to promise summer. Barren strawberry flowered in the mounds: oak buds began to swell and open. On the 17th a sedge-reedling set up his welcome chirping, having returned to the same swampy spot, well surrounded with bushes, where he dwelt last year. Cowslips flowered in the meadows, and a cuckoo was heard and seen repeatedly. The cuckoo now perched on some rails, and now on the top of a small rick, then flew away, showing the slaty colour of his back, to return unseen and suddenly call again from an oak. While I watched his movements a kestrel approached and began to hover with beating wings over the meadow. Hardly had he got his balance when five rooks—a small flock—returning to their nest-trees less than half a mile distant, and well in sight, came up, and one of them at once attacked the hawk. First the rook flew straight at the hovering kestrel: and as he came from behind, the hawk did not appear to notice him till within a few yards, when suddenly recognizing his danger he ceased to hover and avoided the rook’s rush with a quick sideways spring, as it were, in the air. Now the kestrel swept round—the rook after him; with some labour the rook got highest, and closing his wings dived down, with neck and beak thrust out, on the hawk. Another twirl carried the kestrel out of the line of this swoop. And again he circled round to avoid his assailant; but his wide sweep brought near a second rook; and in an instant this rook too closed his wings, and, with his beak projecting like a white dagger (they were so near, all the colours were easily distinguished) darted down on the hawk. A third time the kestrel escaped; but he now seemed alarmed, for he descended to a hedge and followed it for some distance, and when he rose he was making off at full speed. The moment the rooks saw this, the whole five turned and pursued him, following so far that they were all lost to sight. Thus they drove the hawk from the neighbourhood of their trees.

Though the cuckoo had now been heard and seen, the lady’s-smock or cuckoo-flower could not be found by the furrows, where it usually announces the approach of the bird. No doubt the dry winds delayed it, just as they delayed everything. It is a plant fond of moisture, and all the furrows are dry, and even the marshy place where the marsh-marigolds are in flower is—not, indeed, dry, but without visible water; the surface of the mud white with the vegeta­tion that flourishes there, but which the sunshine has killed. So powerful has been the wind that even the hardy furze has not bloomed as it usually does: only a few bushes have put forth their golden flowers. Nor had we seen a swallow up to the date of the cuckoo’s appearance—not one of either species; their absence is probably local, still it is remarkable. And now the easterly wind has returned again—it is almost as bitter as ever. There is no dust left for it to raise: the dust was all carried away before; that from the arable fields quite whitened the boughs of an adjacent copse, and under these storms of dry particles, the dark foliage of the pines became grey.”

The surprise snowfall of 24th April did not lead to much of a covering, as it soon melted, but here is a photo of the snowstorm in full flow:

Snow April 24 2017

Yesterday the fells were looking more colourful. In this photo it is possible to see the line of deciduous trees which fringe the beck as it winds into the hills (mid-right). Each tree has a fine spray of green which grows deeper every day. The fields which surround the farm are developing richer pasture, and are being grazed by ewes with their lambs:

Howgll fells april 2017

 

In the Early Autumn

Rebecca Welshman

autumnparkland

Source: http://foam.merseyforest.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/image1.jpeg

Jefferies wrote this article for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1879, which formed part of a seasonal series. The entire article can be found in the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’. Here Jefferies captures the changeability of autumn, that raw, almost hushed excitement that you can feel upon walking through an autumnal landscape. The colours of the season are a celebration in themselves – as if the foliage of the land is making its final stand against the onset of winter with vibrancy and stoicism. In autumn the leaves of spring finally find their ultimate forms before they drop from their boughs altogether. Crisp, curled, stained in brown and russet, they form a collage that so many of us look forward to seeing and experiencing. The winds of change are abroad…so let us step into October…

“Hardy October has an especial charm to those who love the open air. The winds rush forward with a bluff freedom, and welcome you to the fields with hearty rudeness. Something seems to prepare the frame to stand the coming winter. The footsteps would fain wander farther and farther through the woodland, where the sward is hidden under fallen leaves. The scene changes with the hour of the day. Come to the hedgerow here, beside the stubble, early in the morning, and the mist conceals the other side of the field; the great hawthorn bushes loom out from it, and the grass by the ditch is white with heavy dew. By-and-by the mist clears, and the sky gives its own grey tint to all things. All sounds are hushed, and all colours subdued. Yet later on the breeze rises, and as it sweeps past throws a golden largesse of leaves on either hand. The monotonous grey sky resolves itself into separate clouds, which hasten overhead, with gaps where the sun seems nearly to shine through. These places are brightly illuminated from above, and yet the beams do not penetrate. After a while there comes a gleam of sunshine, and the eyes that have been bent on earth instinctively look up- The hedge is still so green with leaves that the wind is warded off and the sunshine is pleasantly warm. The rays have immediately found out and lit up every spot of colour. In the hawthorn the dull red haws, very large this year; on the briar the scarlet hips; a few flowers still lingering on the gambles; a pale herb of betony under the bushes, a late knapweed, a few thistles yet blooming—these catch the glance along the hedge. The short stubble is almost concealed by a rank growth of weeds, above which rise the fading  yellow heads of the camomile, heads from which the white petals have drooped and fallen. The boughs of yonder horse-chestnuts have been thinned of foliage by the wind; but every leaf that remains is bright with tints of yellow. One tree especially stands out above the hedge; the leaves are almost crimson, so deeply has the frost touched them. It is not often that the foliage of the horse-chestnut takes so rich a dye as may be seen this autumn. The leaves commonly fall before their first pale yellow has reddened. The elms and oaks are still green, and show but little apparent change, though in truth much of their foliage has dropped. A brown oak leaf lies on the sward; it glistens with dew as if the colour laid on it was still wet. Along the shore of the pond a broad fringe of fallen leaves—from the elm that overshadows it— undulates on the wavelets that roll into the rushes and are lost. Up the slender rushes a tint of yellow is rising; the pointed flags that lift their green swords so proudly have bent, and their tips rest in the water. In the corner by the copse the thick growth of fern has become brown, and the tuffets of grass are streaked with grey. Overhead, the sky is now a beautiful blue; and if you look into the shadows of the trees—as in the copse where there is an open space—you will note that they are very soft and delicate. There are no sharply defined dark edges—the shadow between the tree-trunks appears like an indistinct mist. The eye as it gazes becomes conscious of undertones of colour for which there is no name. A cloud passes over the sun, and instantly they are blotted out. The beams fall again upon the wood, and the glow as immediately returns.

The acorns are full on the oak boughs, but they are still quite green, and none have dropped. Glad in the sunshine, the greenfinches troop along the hedge calling to each other sweetly. Larks rise and hover just above the trees, wheeling round, and returning to the earth. Now and then one soars and sings. On the top of the hawthorn bushes in the hedge the hedge-sparrows utter a single note from time to time-Not now, but early in the morning, the song of the robin comes through the mist, and the lively ‘fink’ of the chaffinch sounds in the tree. Thrushes sometimes sing in October; but hitherto the sharp frosts at the dawn have silenced them. Two or three swallows still float to-day in the blue sky above the wood. How slowly the plough goes through the stubble; the horses scarcely seem to move! Yet by degrees the space between the furrows becomes less, till nothing but a narrow path remains; and that is finally upturned by the share. They who live by the earth must be patient, and content to move slow like the seasons. Passing the gateway the shelter of the hedge is for the moment lost, and the northern blast rushes with all its force full in the face. This is the pleasure of October—the deep blue sky, the glowing colour of the leaves, the bright sun that lights up even the grey lichen on the oak bark, and with it the keen invigorating breeze that strengthens every limb. Travellers tell us of the wonderful colours of tropical forests; but then the moist sweltering heat renders the explorer incapable of enjoying them. But in English woodlands autumn colour is accompanied by a subtle change in the atmosphere which braces the wanderer.”

Winds of Summer

There have been gales and torrential rain here today in Cumbria. The beck by the farmhouse has risen to the highest it has been since spring – the brown waters are rushing and brawling over the stones, carrying away twigs and anything in their path in a torrent of haste. The winds have brought down branches from the Sycamore trees that overhang the beck, and little groups of sheep are huddling together in the lee of the stone barns.

In the essay ‘Winds of Heaven’ Jefferies recalls his experiences of summer winds:

“It is summer, and the wind-birds top the furze ; the bright stonechat, velvet-black and red and white, sits on the highest spray of the gorse, as if he were painted there. He is always in the wind on the hill, from the hail of April to August’s dry glow. All the mile-long slope of the hill under me is purple-clad with heath down to the tree-filled gorge where the green boughs seem to join the purple. The corn-fields and the pastures of the plain — count them one by one till the hedges and squares close together and cannot be separated. The surface of the earth melts away as if the eyes insensibly shut and grew dreamy in gazing, as the soft clouds melt and lose their outline at the horizon. But dwelling there, the glance slowly finds and fills out something that interposes its existence between us and the further space. Too shadowy for the substance of a cloud, too delicate for outline against the sky, fainter than haze, something of which the eye has consciousness, but cannot put into a word to itself. Something is there. It is the air-cloud adhering like a summer garment to the great downs by the sea. I cannot see the substance of the hills nor their exact curve along the sky ; all I can see is the air that has thickened and taken to itself form about them. The atmosphere has collected as the shadow collects in the distant corner of a room — it is the shadow of the summer wind. At times it is so soft, so little more than the air at hand, that I almost fancy I can look through the solid boundary. There is no cloud so faint ; the great hills are but a thought at the horizon; I think them there rather than see them ; if I were not thinking of them, I should scarce know there was even a haze, with so dainty a hand does the atmosphere throw its covering over the massy downs. Riding or passing quickly perhaps you would not observe them ; but stay among the heathbells, and the sketch appears in the south. Up from the sea over the corn-fields, through the green boughs of the forest, along the slope, comes a breath of wind, of honey-sweetened air, made more delicate by the fanning of a thousand wings.

The labour of the wind : the cymbals of the aspen clashing, from the lowest to the highest bough, each leaf twirling first forwards and then backwards and swinging to and fro, a double motion. Each lifts a little and falls back like a pendulum, twisting on itself ; and as it rises and sinks, strikes its fellow-leaf Striking the side of the dark pines, the wind changes their colour and turns them paler. The oak leaves slide one over the other, hand above hand, laying shadow upon shadow upon the white road. In the vast net of the wide elm-tops the drifting shadow of the cloud which the wind brings is caught for a moment. Pushing aside the stiff ranks of the wheat with both arms, the air reaches the sun-parched earth. It walks among the mowing-grass like a farmer feeling the crop with his hand one side, and opening it with his walking-stick the other. It rolls the wavelets carelessly as marbles to the shore ; the red cattle redden the pool and stand in their own colour. The green cater- pillar swings as he spins his thread and lengthens his cable to the tide of air, descending from the tree; before he can slip it the whitethroat takes him. With a thrust the wind hurls the swift fifty miles faster on his way ; it ruffles back the black velvet of the mole peeping forth from his burrow. Apple bloom and crab-apple bloom have been blown long since athwart the furrows over the orchard wall ; May petals and June roses scattered; the pollen and the seeds of the meadow-grasses thrown on the threshing-floor of earth in basketfuls. Thistle down and dandelion down, the brown down of the goat’s-beard ; by-and-by the keys of the sycamores twirling aslant — the wind carries them all on its back, gossamer web and great heron’s vanes — the same weight to the wind  the drops of the waterfall blown aside sprinkle the bright green ferns. The voice of the cuckoo in his season travels on the zephyr, and the note comes to the most distant hill, and deep into the deepest wood.

The light and fire of summer are made beautiful by the air, without whose breath the glorious summer were all spoiled. Thick are the hawthorn leaves, many deep on the spray ; and beneath them there is a twisted and intertangled winding in and out of boughs, such as no curious ironwork of ancient artist could equal; through the leaves and metal-work of boughs the soft west wind wanders at its ease. Wild wasp and tutored bee sing sideways on their course as the breeze fills their vanes; with broad coloured sails boomed out, the butterfly drifts alee. Beside a brown coated stone in the shadowed stream a brown trout watches for the puffs that slay the May-flies. Their ephemeral wings were made for a more exquisite life; they endure but one sun; they bear not the touch of the water; they die like a dream dropping into the river. To the amethyst in the deep ditch the wind comes; no petal so hidden under green it cannot find; to the blue hill-flower up by the sky; it lifts the guilty head of the passionate poppy that has sinned in the sun for love. Sweet is the rain the wind brings to the wallflower browned in the heat, a-dry on the crumbling stone. Pleasant the sunbeams to the marigold when the wind has carried the rain away and his sun-disc glows on the bank. Acres of perfume come on the wind from the black and white of the bean-field; the firs fill the air by the copse with perfume. I know nothing to which the wind has not some happy use.”