Village Voices Nature Note: a Confusion of Seasons

The exciting thing about this time of year is that one keeps seeing the ‘first’ of various things for the year: the first butterfly (usually a floppy yellow brimstone butterfly gliding along a hedge), the first chiffchaff (freshly in from Africa), the first frog spawn (in your garden pond – you should have one if you don’t already), the first bumblebees, the first shoots of green on the hawthorn, the first cowslips in the banks, and so on.  I still feel a jolt of adrenaline when each of these appears again, a reassurance, as the poet Ted Hughes put it, ‘that the world’s still working’.  More than just a reassurance, though.  It’s a joyful sense that the dark days of winter are soon to be replaced by light, warmth and growth.  A feeling of abundance and renewal.  Who wouldn’t feel the emotional sap rising at such a time?

Brimstone butterfly

But it’s getting more complicated, like the rest of life.  This ‘spring’ we had the first sticky buds on the chestnuts in January, and the first aconites out in December; there’s been a chiffchaff flitting around all winter; and I’ve just seen my first brimstone, like a floating piece of detached sunlight.  Isn’t this good news?  It can’t be bad to enjoy the pleasures of spring a month or two earlier, can it?  But suppose we are losing the familiar distinctions between the seasons altogether?  These are deeply ingrained in our history and culture, and give us our bearings in the natural world.  I wouldn’t want a bland, uniform climate in which the cycles of growth and rebirth had been flattened out, even if it was a bit more comfortable. 

We’ve got used to this kind of thing in our eating habits, of course.  You can now eat fresh raspberries all the year round. And you can buy exotic fruits like avocados at any supermarket or corner store.  I don’t suppose I had ever eaten an avocado until I was 30, and if you had asked me as a boy what the word ‘Avocado’ meant I might have guessed at some sort of Church prayer or Mexican board game; but at this rate we may one day see avocados growing in our own back-gardens. 

Perpetual spring would actually mean no spring at all.  No autumn either, perhaps the loveliest of seasons with its bitter-sweet associations.  It was once all so simple in Genesis. ‘While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’  But if you read it carefully, that was both a promise and a warning.

Jeremy Mynott
8 February 2023

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