Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Footsteps of spring

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As soon as the shortest day is past, most people look out for spring. There is a certain gratification in computing from the almanack how many more minutes of daylight each morning brings, though our eyes, even if we scan the east as critically as the new weather prophets look for a “high” or “low” dawn, can discern no difference. Most men would also plead guilty to catching at the faintest gleam of sunshine, when the year has once turned, as the earliest smile of spring. These delights are at the best short lived. Soon February lays his iron grasp upon the earth; and March, if he goes out as a lamb, comes in like a lion, with bluster and storm and the snow that used to fall at Christmas. Then people find out how fallacious have been their anticipations. The weather is once more roundly abused, and the theory that our seasons are changing their cycle comes into general favour.

It is very pleasant, however, in the soft, mild weather that so often marks the beginning of the year, in that deceitful lull between winter’s preludes and the display of his full strength, to watch the earliest reliable signs of spring. Amongst these in town are the budding of the trees, commencing in renewed hope their annual struggle against smoke and dust, and the activity of the sparrows in seizing upon every coign of vantage on our roofs, and filling the rain pipes with straws. Even without visiting Covent Garden more spring sights obtrude themselves in gaunt eager-eyed boys offering for sale primrose plants or ferns, with their curious circinate vernation resembling hairy caterpillars. These were growing on some dewy hedgerow last night, but in the grey dawn hungry hands tore them up and wearily carried them off to the fashionable squares so as to gladden your eyes with them at midday, and procure themselves a meal. You know well enough that their tender hues will shortly fade and die; but who can resist buying them? They transport us in a moment to far-off fields, swept with waves of sunlight and flecked with butter-cups and cuckoo-flowers, where the wild bird flits to the mossy tufts, and his mate sings clearly from the hawthorn sprays. The lazy kine stand knee deep in the rich pasturage, and—“There, boy, take, oh take thy sixpence!” The poor lad has fairly earned it, if only for the glimpse of spring’s delights his primrose tuft has given us. We have passed a few seconds in fairy land, and may well pay thrice his fee to the imp who yoked Queen Mab’s steeds to our fancy.

But it is in the country that Spring leaves her footsteps most. By lonely woodland ways, adown dingles daily soothed by the queest’s soft notes, where the woodcock and the owl resort at night, flits her airy presence. There Lent lilies blow, and timid snowdrops cluster round violet beds for protection, and children, as they gather them, run round some tangled maze of budding shoots to catch winter’s ghost, and haply fall into the last snowdrift. Do you not remember such a spot dear to your childhood, where you gazed through the screen of willow-herbs at the patriarchal trout sunning himself below, or watched the water-rat busily nibbling the arrow-head; and even as you looked a flash of blue and gold darted past you—the kingfisher seeking his ancient nest in the hollow bank?

Those were indeed halcyon days. But let us consider what are amongst the earliest signs of spring in the country. To begin nearest home, even if we do not possess a garden “royally ordered,” as my Lord Bacon would lay it down, crocuses and snowdrops, mezereon and laurustinus bloom everywhere. Birds begin their love labours in the shrubbery, gnats play in the midday sunshine. Those who, like White of Selborne, keep a tortoise, find “Timothy” at this time emerging from his winter quarters. Toads and hedgehogs (both capital garden pets) now reappear in their old haunts. Earthworms and slugs show themselves earlier in the year, though snails do not leave their hiding-places till March, or (as it was last year) even the 2nd of April.

There is much to notice in the various hues, &c., of the opening buds. In the ash, for instance, they are black, bright red in the lime, pink in the elder, faintly white and green in roses, reddish brown and glutinous in the horse-chesnut, slender, long, and delicate in the beech, as befits that elegant woodland queen.

Indications of spring are most commonly sought in the leafing of shrubs and trees. The elder and gooseberry are amongst the earliest. We noticed the former in tender leaf, in a bleak locality too, on January 13th of this year. The elm and ash may be taken as representatives of April. Towards the end of that month or the beginning of May, the foliage of the beech generally shows itself; the walnut and oak come later in the same month. The honeysuckle is the earliest of all our native shrubs to put forth its trustful leaves. We noticed one in leaf on January 11th of this year, 1863, which however is so far an exceptionally early spring. Amongst our fruit-trees pears are earliest in blossom. The natural history calendars give from March 30th to May 29th as its extreme periods; but last year we had one in full flower on March 26th.

Several plants anticipate the new year by their flowering. The polyanthus, red and white dead nettle, periwinkle, and creeping crowfoot do so frequently. The furze displays its golden blossoms simultaneously with the year’s beginning. These are like the earliest footsteps of spring. In the next group may be classed, of the garden flowers, the winter aconite, snowdrop, and crocus, in the order we have placed them; in the fields come the field speedwell, wild strawberry, coltsfoot, primrose, and lesser celandine. Then, towards the end of March, sweet violets, wood anemones, the moschatel, and gorgeous marsh marigolds usher in the full wealth of spring, represented by such flowers as the cowslip, wood-sorrel, early spotted orchis, and above all the wild hyacinth. And so at length Spring comes upon us in all her beauty, garlanded with white star flowers, and with sprays of dewy roses hanging round her; “setting the jewelled print of her feet in violets blue as her eyes,” round hedgerows where magpies chatter, and lambs gambol beneath, amongst our peaceful fields and homesteads.

Surely spring is nowhere so lovely as in our own England! And yet it is just at that time London lays down its season shall commence, by laws remorseless as those of the Medes and Persians. There is a story of an eminent judge, retiring after a long and honourable public life to one of the most lovely spots of England’s most lovely county, and remarking with wonder on the beauty of his native wild flowers in spring. He could not well have seen spring flowers since he was a boy. In some such mood does the poet sigh for his English spring from a foreign land—

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees some morning unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England now!

So we may literally conclude our “swallow-song,” as the old Rhodians termed their praises of spring, by a few ornithological notices of that season. Even before the new year in damp dawns and evenings, the redbreast sings. Though no great songster at any time, he makes a pleasant interlude till the thrush takes up his strains. The blue titmouse becomes very active, and chirps his monotonous note as he flutters round the larches during January. Early in February rooks will return to their trees, and nest-building be very general with them by the 15th. Our winter visitors will begin to return to their breeding places at that time. To make up for the departure of the main body of wild fowl from our shores, March brings us a few migratory birds, such as the chiff-chaff and wheat-ear. The rest of our summer visitors come in numbers during April, and are then easily recognised by their peculiar notes. The cuckoo, the bird of spring more than all others, will “tell his name to all the hills” from the middle to the end of this month. Those universal favourites, the members of the swallow family, come in the following order:—First, the sand-martin, towards the end of March; the chimney-swallow, from then to the middle of April; the house-martin, from that date to the beginning of May. Last of all his congeners the swift returns to church towers and lofty castles not often before the first fortnight in May. With his arrival spring is in the full flush of beauty. His stay is commensurate with summer, and his departure, first of all the swallow family (which is never delayed beyond the first ten days of August), becomes the earliest herald of autumn.