There has been a lot to make the heart sing recently: sunny weather, the daffodils providing a wash of yellow in parks and gardens, birds busy nest building and the joy of Easter. It is time to balance the recent serious grey tone of my blogs on coronavirus with some life colour and an appreciation of those good things that give us a spring in our step.
Being in lockdown for so long can lead to a sense of disorientation both with respect to time and to connection. In normal times the routines of daily life provide a rhythm to our lives: the school run, commuting to work, putting kids to bed, the weekly shop. At the time, we often feel they take up too much time and prevent us from getting on with things on our personal wish list: sitting in a chair reading a book, listening to music, etc. However those routines provide a necessary rhythm and, in their absence, it is easy to lose direction. There are less of these fixed routines as one gets older. With my wife working from home and myself retired it is all too easy for time to drift and for there to be few time signposts.
In the autumn and winter, we kept a rough routine by going for a walk each day, and every Wednesday, whatever the weather, took a picnic with us to enjoy outside. As well as the fresh air we visited new places in and around Edinburgh: the Water of Leith, Roslin Glen, Harlaw reservoir, the Almond river at Cramond, the ponds at Musselburgh to name a few. However the snow and frosts prevented us from playing golf over the winter although we continued our walks but less frequently. Then at the beginning of March we lost the routine, though we were slow to acknowledge it. A mixture of commitments and the urge to start getting the garden into shape and we were blown off course.
Our relaxation habits in lockdown of doing jigsaws and getting immersed in books can add to the sense of unreality. Our only connections until very recently with the outside world has been a fortnightly trip to pick up groceries in a supermarket car park. So time seems to pass at varying pace: sometimes it moves slowly, sometimes fast; when life is much the same day after day there seems a disjointed sequence of events, a jumbling of experiences. Perhaps we are dazed from the monotony. Friends have remarked that there is no real distinction between weekends and weekdays any longer. The uncertainty about the future can lead to fluctuations in our moods: whirls and swirls of tumbling thoughts and conjecture about what the situation might be in a few months’ time and regret for time lost.
Whirls and swirls.
Whirls and swirls of autumn leaves,
tumbling in the whispering breeze
Dreams and hopes tossed in the air,
crumbling walls against despair
My heart is beating with a flutter
The words my mouth just cannot utter
Uncertain future, present fears
What tides will wash us through the year?
In winter, snow wiped out the view,
a smothering blanket, white of hue,
minds frozen by the viral storm
a shadow life, outside the norm
But hope arrived this week with spring,
the blackbird and the robin sing
A colour change through flower and tree,
the welcome buzz of bumble bees
A slender recognition of signs
that we could move to better times
With vaccine rollout going fast
a hint of hope appears at last
The outside world in calm progression,
reminds us of a timeless lesson
The fortunes of mankind are tied
to peace with earth, life side by side
While our lives have lost rhythm recently, nature’s wheel has continued to turn on its annual cycle. Last year with the good spring weather of the first lockdown we were able to spend time watching nature more closely, following the progression of spring in flower, tree and wildlife. With an almanac and gardening diary to hand it has been a source of gentle enjoyment to see what is expected to happen, watch it happen and record some of the highlights.
Almanacs were used by the Babylonians as providing astronomical information on the movement of the sun, the moon and the planets. This type of information is still recorded in modern almanacs. The importance of early almanacs was related to predicting the weather, which was a vital aid to farming. The changing length of days through the year and the angle of the sun alter the warming of the earth and the light available to plants to photosynthesise. Whilst the belief, held by Ptolemy, that planets and stars might in some way influence seasonal weather is unfounded, the fascination in these bodies, so far away in space, has not diminished. Horoscopes are as popular now as they were then. Old almanacs often also provided daily or monthly advice with predictions of what were good or bad days and advice on how to deal with them.
The author of my current almanac describes its purpose as being “celebrating the unfolding year with advice and useful information for each month as the year progresses”. As well as tables of information on sunrises and sunsets, phases of the moon and tides it provides gardening notes, monthly recipes and articles on butterfly and bird migration plus an article or two about the month in question.
Looking regularly at the night sky has brought rewards: for example observing the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last December and the recent Lyrid meteor shower. Fortuitously I woke up at 3 am on April 22nd, so went upstairs and, with the aid of a compass, looked at the right region of the sky between northeast and east. I was not disappointed. Despite all the night lights in the car park of the housing development opposite, I could see stars moving and then suddenly one or more apparently shooting in a low arc across the sky. Well worth the effort. If you missed it this year you can put it in your diary for next year as it occurs annually sometime between April 16th and the 25th. I also managed to get a good view of the April supermoon on April 27th. Moonrise was after 9 p.m. and there was dark swirling cloud, so patience was required. Although the April moon is referred to as the Pink Moon, this originated in the name given by Native Americans because of the flowering pink Phlox. In the UK this moon is called the Hare Moon or Egg Moon.
Our gardens, parks and even the roadside verges have been a mass of colour this spring. First to unfold were the white snowdrops, followed by the short but vivid display of crocuses in purples, yellows and white. Many gardens are bedecked with the predominantly blue Scillas, followed by the majestic daffodils and narcissi, which, though now mostly past their best, continue in some locations to provide a carpet of yellow speckled with whites, creams and oranges. All these plants and the spring tulips are bulbs, which lie dormant underground for most of the year. In the winter hormonal changes are triggered by a combination of the lower temperatures and the shorter days. In spring as the days lengthen and temperatures rise, hormonal changes also trigger the conversion of stored carbohydrates into sugars that provide the energy for the leaves to push their way out of the bulb and upwards through the soil. This is the ultimate combination of a rhythm tuned to provide a peak of flowering once a year. Left to their own devices and in a stable environment the cycle will repeat for many years. A lesson in economy.
There has also been plenty of birdlife both in our garden and around the city to enjoy. Our walks in the autumn and winter taught us the most likely places to see particular birds such as bullfinches, whilst in our garden we have made minor alterations in the location and contents of our feeders to attract a wider variety of songbirds. The scattering of mealworms on the ground attracts robins and blackbirds, whilst the location of feeders affects the frequency of visits from sparrows and tits. We have observed that a male chaffinch visits a transparent box feeder attached to the balcony glass but not the other feeders; the reason is unclear.
My favourite species of all our garden visitors is the blackbird. Last year we enjoyed his music all spring and summer, a mellifluous, easily recognisable proclamation. We learnt that he had three favourite perches (roughly north, west and south) and would fly between them in a fairly predictable manner, always ending the evening on the southern perch. This year both male and female blackbirds have been in the garden more, perhaps attracted by those meal worms. Breeding lasts from early March to late July, after which the song of the male is no longer heard. As pairs raise 2-3 broods annually the chances are we should see some juveniles, recognisable by their warm speckled plumage, if we are observant.
It is hardly surprising that over the long period of covid restrictions that there are periods where we lose direction, or events follow a different path from what we expected or hoped. Last year in June I wrote a blog called “Emergence” about the feeling of coming out of lockdown. It is odd looking back at my dairies for these months and the now chartered timelines for the pandemic. These have differed from country to country and within the four constituent nations of the UK. Scotland published a route map out of lockdown on May 29th 2020, based on the belief that life would steadily become more normal. Outdoor bars and cafes were allowed to reopen in early July (then pubs). However, it was just a few months before a series of restrictions were brought in as covid cases rose again and these restrictions increased steadily. By mid-October a two-week closure of all bars in the central belt of Scotland began; in November Scotland introduced a 5-tier system with most of Scotland in tier 3, with a total lockdown imposed on January 4th, 2021.
So as we now stand again on the threshold of emergence once again, we would be wise not to consider it “game over” and spare more than a thought for those in other parts of the world where vaccination progress has been much slower (Vaccination against Covid-19 : one for all and all for one?). The worsening covid situation in India is a stark reminder that no one is safe until we are all safe and that the virus recognises no national boundaries. Covid complacency seems to have been a major factor, a lesson we would do well to remember.
Currently in the UK the covid outlook has the successful vaccination programme has led to a more optimistic outlook and the feel good factor has been enhanced by the enjoyment of spring. On a personal level enjoying the ordered progression of spring in our garden has reminded me of a small but valuable lesson: to get back into a relaxed and natural rhythm of living. It is time for us to reset our clocks and our inner compass. However urgent other calls on our time are, we need to restart those weekly walks with a picnic. What was next on the list?
Poem Whirls and Swirls Copyright © 2021 by Bruce Ward