Village Voices Nature Note: Despite Everything, Spring!

04 Mar 2022
I’m writing this on Friday 4 March. The forecast yesterday was for a mild night with a light southerly breeze and I felt something special might be about to happen, a little annual miracle that means more to me every passing year. So I went out at first light, senses flaring and on full alert. I only had to walk a short way before I heard it – a clear double refrain in the still morning air, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff. Yes, I shouted, and punched the air like a demented football fan. The chiffchaff had returned – on exactly the same day as last year and even to the very same bushes. Magic!

The chiffchaff is just a tiny olive-green warbler, weighing no more than a 2p piece, but it’s always the first migrant to make the long journey back. I listen out for it eagerly every March and think of it surfing the green wave of spring that travels steadily north across Europe, bringing with it a new season of light, warmth and growth. Twenty years ago they would arrive here about 15 March and fifty years ago 31 March – that’s global warming for you, but the thrill has been the same each time.

This year is different in another way, though. It’s just as exciting to hear this herald of spring again, but it’s terribly poignant. The news from Ukraine is almost unbearable and other, human, migrants are streaming across Europe in despair. It will soon be the spring equinox, the moment in the year when night equals day and the forces of darkness and light are in equilibrium. That’s a perfect metaphor for this conjunction of destruction in the human world and rebirth and renewal in nature. I had the same feeling in March 2020 when the Covid pandemic first took a grip, right at the start of one of the best springs in living memory. The spring was unstoppable then and so it will be again this year, just as the tides will rise and fall every day, regardless of human disasters. And we can find hope, beauty and consolation in these natural rhythms, of which we are an integral part, if we respond to them fully. That’s not evading the bad news but counteracting it.

You can listen to the chiffchaff’s onomatopoeic song, if you just google chiffchaff song. Some old country names represent this as chip-chop, chit-chat, siff-siaff (Welsh) or tiuf-teuf (Irish); while the Dutch call it tjift-tjaf and the Germans zilp-zalp. Whatever the language, by the time you read this the chiffchaffs will have arrived all over Europe, with the promise of spring in their songs.
Jeremy Mynott