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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

February ‘fill-dyke’

Posted on February 01 2015 at 2:04:24 0 comments

Snowdrops at Cattespool

Mary Green sheds light on some of our seasonal festivals.

February is an odd month: the transition between winter and spring, which can lean heavily either way! It’s perhaps the month most influenced by the jet-stream’s position, which can make it a time of freezing snows or mild growing weather.

Its position in the old country and belief calendars reflects this. It is also well-known for being very wet, filling the ditches or dykes, and rarely disappoints in this!

The start of February (usually February 1 or 2) is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. So, there have always been festivals around this day, especially in the northern hemisphere.

The one we still celebrate a little is Groundhog Day, which is based on the older celebration of Candlemas, which itself took over the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc.

Imbolc was the beginning of spring. It’s one of the four Celtic seasonal festivals, along with Beltane (Mayday), Lughnasa (Lammas) and Samhain (All Hallows), which all occur halfway between equinox and solstice.

It is still recognised in Ireland and parts of Scotland, though now with its Christianised name of St Brigid’s Day.

Brigid was the name of the Celtic goddess who represented Imbolc, and the Christian Saint Brigid took over her time as her saint’s day. At Imbolc, Brigid’s crosses were made and a doll-like figure of Brigid would be paraded from house to house.

Brigid was said to visit one’s home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brigid and leave her food and drink.

Brigid was also invoked to protect homes and livestock. Feasts were held, holy wells were visited and it was also a time for foretelling the future.

It was thought that the weather for the coming year could be foreseen, and wassails were held to bless the ground for new crops.

There is a similar festival in Wales at Candlemas which has ancient elements. It marked the end of the period of time when working by candlelight was allowed, due to it being the dark part of the year.

The candle was then handed back on February 2 when the light had increased enough for candles to be dispensed with and the farm animals could be fed before dark. Candles were lit on this day and carried in procession.

Early spring was the time to ensure protection and fertility for the crops and animals. “Wassailing” was thought to bring fertile crops and an increase of livestock in the coming year for those who provided the wassailers with ale.

If the sun shone on the altar on Candlemas Day it was thought that there would be an abundant harvest the following year. However, if a single crow was seen hovering or circling over a house on the eve or day of Candlemas, it was considered unlucky.

Candlemas itself is a Christian holiday celebrating the presentation of Christ at the temple, and the “purification” of the Virgin Mary.

At one time, women were considered impure after childbirth until they had been “churched”, and this element of Candlemas is still celebrated in Catholic churches.

When Mary was able to enter the church again she presented the infant Christ at the altar. Candles are lit in memory of this. In parts of Europe pancakes are eaten in celebration, rather like on Shrove Tuesday.

In Spanish-speaking countries, whoever finds baby figures hidden inside the Rosca de Reyes (Kings’ Cake) on Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on January 6 is obliged to bring food to a gathering held on February 2.

Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Candlemas by bringing beeswax candles to their local church and asking for these candles to be blessed to be used in the church or at home.

Some Christians observe the practice of leaving Christmas decorations up until Candlemas, again linking it to Twelfth Night which is now the accepted date.

However, the other traditions around Candlemas probably come more from Imbolc. These relate to predicting the future year. The British version of this is:

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas Day be cloudy with rain
Winter has gone and will not come again”

Last year, Candlemas Day was definitely fair and bright, but winter didn’t come back, so it isn’t to be relied on! However, the normal pattern in winter of wet and mild spells alternating with clear and cold means that it would often be right.

The American version of this is Groundhog Day, when the groundhog’s appearance or otherwise shows what the weather will be like. Apparently some English people substitute the badger for this.

This myth is obviously related to the coming out of animals into the open from their warm hiding places and testing the weather at this time of year.

The flower that symbolises both Imbolc and Candlemas is the snowdrop, which used to be called the Candlemas bell. It was Brigid’s flower, and also symbolises hope and purity. Like the candles, it is used to illustrate Christ as light and hope of the world.

Brigid’s bird is the oyster-catcher, that distinctive black and white bird on shore lines.

If you want to see good snowdrops, there are lots of places around here. Interestingly, they have become a favourite flower in churchyards, and St Laurence in Alvechurch and Cofton church have lovely examples.

Big houses often have them in their grounds, and you can see a lovely show at Cattespool near Alvechurch (pictured). None of these are wild but they naturalise very well.

If you want to see them in the wild, go to Chance Wood near Stourbridge (GR S0845859), a nature reserve full of snowdrops followed by native daffodils.

If you want your own snowdrops in a wild part of your garden, they plant best “in the green”, in other words when the flowers are over but the leaves still there. But don’t take them from the wild!

Snowdrops contain galanthine, a drug also found in daffodils. Galanthine is currently being trialled as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

They grow daffodils high on Welsh maintains to stress them (stressed plants produce more of the chemicals). I guess it might be hard to stress a snowdrop, as it is used to growing and flowering under snow!

You won’t see oyster catchers around here, but there are other birds associated with February. These are more connected to that other festival, St Valentine, which happens on February 14.

This was traditionally the time when the birds started singing and mating, pairing up for the year.

The birds you hear most prominently at the beginning of February are the robin and great tit. The robin has been singing all winter. The great tit starts in winter and gets louder and more prominent in February. His call is the two-note one (great-tit, great-tit) you hear everywhere.

Their feeding habits are interesting. They especially like a type of caterpillar, which is very nutritious and also a source of the yellow pigment on their breasts. So the yellower the breast, the healthier the great-tit, and the more he will attract females.

But in the middle of February another bird joins them – the chaffinch. This distinctive bird with its salmon-pink and blue-grey markings nearly always starts singing around St Valentine’s.

It takes them a little while to get back into their song, which is a long line of notes increasing in speed and followed by a flourish (often likened to a cricketer running up and bowling). But once one starts, within a few days the others will follow.

To me, they always mark the start of spring, and are usually accompanied by crocuses.

Who St Valentine was is open to question, except that he was a martyr in Roman times. The use of his day to celebrate romantic love didn’t begin until the middle ages, part of the popular fashion for romantic or “courtly” love which came about then.

It’s hard for modern people to realise that romantic love as we know it didn’t always exist, when most marriages were arranged. Writers like Chaucer helped to make the idea popular, and the St Valentine myth was all part of this.

It’s interesting how this day is still widely celebrated, when few saints are.

What else can you see if you go out in February? If it’s mild, you may see the first blossom, the cherry-plum. Even the sloe or blackthorn may be out by the end of the month. Both of these are white and cover the hedges with flowers.

At the roadside you can see dog’s mercury, a little green flower that reliably comes early in the year. The hazels and pussy-willows will have catkins ready to be full of pollen.

Celandines, the glossy yellow many-petalled flowers, will appear, alongside coltsfoot, like a miniature dandelion. You may hear greenfinches singing with the chaffinches – they have a wheezy song, as if drawing in breath.

On the hawthorn hedges, you should find the first leaves coming. These used to be eaten by country children, and called “bread and cheese” because they were a good basic food.

This reminds us that February is often the start of Lent, this year on February 18. On the day before, Shrove Tuesday, the last of the winter supplies were eaten in a feast and the austere spring fast began.

Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is a much-celebrated festival, often quite wild in Latin countries, which again marks the end of winter. Here we only seem to have pancake races.

If Lent didn’t exist, people would probably have fasted anyway as there was so little fresh food about. Fortunately, as Lent starts, food begins to be available in the wild. People gathered all manner of young green plants to make “Lenten puddings.”

A vegetarian diet with some fish is a natural thing to be able to eat at that time of year. You can find wild garlic, garlic mustard, cow parsley, goosegrass, bittercress, chickweed, ground elder and lots of other edible green leaves to make a lovely stir-fry or omelette to celebrate the start of spring.

Chinese New Year usually comes near Mardi Gras (on February 19 this year): it is another “movable feast” like Easter, being based on the lunar calendar.

It has become a common celebration in Britain now, with a great example in Birmingham’s Chinese quarter. It shares the aspect of feasting and celebration during the dark time of year that Mardi Gras has.

I’m sure one of our new Withybed residents will enjoy Chinese New Year – the famous mandarin duck, which came to live here over Christmas. It has a stunning colour and a very odd way of holding its wings – and it is an aggressive little thing! I saw it see off a much larger mallard.

By February the ducks and geese will be mating, and the swans start nesting. By February the ducks and geese will be mating, and the swans start nesting.

I hope the work currently being done to improve the towpath here doesn’t destroy the vegetation or upset their lives too much.

This poem comes from this grey time of year.

In praise of grey

Sometimes, in the middle of vividness -
Sun on bluebell sea, orchid-purple silk -
I crave winter trees, taut and bare
Bristling my skyline like raised hair
Mist on the sea, foghorn-ghosted
The wild west wind bending the blackthorn
Or that quiet winter weather when
You feel the blood slowing in the twigs
Ragged sky over water, the surf
Sighing back from the grey shingle
The wild geese wheeling in huge flocks
Calling madly and forlorn, pointing
Their skeins to ice and Arctic skies
And anyway, today, grey is the colour
Of all my true loves’ hair


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