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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

New starts

Posted on March 30 2015 at 10:35:12 0 comments

Apple blossom

Mary Green explores our symbols of new life in springtime.

It’s an interesting spring for wildlife. Everything is a couple of weeks later than you would expect, especially since it doesn’t feel as if we’ve had a particularly hard winter. But it has been consistently slightly cold, and that seems to make the difference. So long as we don’t get late snow or hard frost, everything should come back fine.

Changes around here have led to some destruction of wildlife. I have been able to walk along a beautiful new towpath – with not much vegetation alongside.

However, there are already coltsfoot, celandines and dandelions flowering on one stretch where they have been more careful with the bank, and seedlings and fresh green leaves on the first stretch completed. It will come back.

But some things won’t come back. I walked along the canal in February to see if the lovely cherry plum tree by the M42 bridge was starting to flower. It was gone, replaced by a little pile of sawdust.

My enquiries to the Canal and Rivers Trust found out that their contractors had cut it down “by mistake”. It posed no threat to the canal or the bridge. This just shows how careless management can obliterate something that had taken decades to grow.

Cherry plum is important because it is the first blossom, and feeds the first insects that emerge. I understand they will plant some more cherry plums, and CRT will also plant more trees on their land near Alvechurch station and near the dead arm. There will be a lot of young trees to wait for around here!

There has also been change in one of my other favourite places – the little ridge of trees between road and railway going out from Barnt Green towards Blackwell. I last wrote about it in December, saying:

“This has some oaks over 200 years old so must have predated the railway. It has young oaks too, and birch, sweet chestnut and horse chestnut. In May it is full of bluebells, in autumn boletus and fly agaric fungus, and there is beautiful golden bracken in winter – it is another piece of old woodland.”

Unfortunately the rail-side embankment has become unstable, and they have had to cut down most of the trees along that side to stabilise the bank.

Although they have left the bigger oaks on the side nearer the road, they have had to run vehicles along the ridge and have torn up the woodland floor. I’m not sure if the flora and fungi will come back.

Meanwhile, a lovely stand of poplars has been felled close to the Alvechurch FC ground. They were part of the modern landscape of the ancient Lye meadows, and will be much missed.

April is traditionally seen as the month of showers, and also of the growth those showers produce. Chaucer in the 14th century talks of the “sweet showers” of April “piercing the drought of March to the root” – a very fertile image!

TS Eliot said that April was the cruellest month, because its warmth stirred up desire. So you might wonder why the month starts, not with fertility or desire, but with April Fools.

This was first mentioned in the 17th century, and has some similarities to the festival of misrule that used to happen around Twelfth Night.

“All Fools Day” happens widely in Europe and the Americas. It is possibly due to the change in when the new year was celebrated.

In earlier centuries, new year was on Lady Day, March 25, and the festival would last till April 1. When new year moved to January, some aspects of the festivities were retained.

Pranks and foolishness are important parts of folklore. Sometimes they were associated with the fairies – the older beings who hide especially in the countryside.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck talks of the tricks he plays on people. The jester or fool in old stories and plays is often actually the carrier of ancient wisdom.

Tricks and pranks reversed the social order, exposing its weaknesses. And of course country people were often thought of as “village idiots” – the joke usually being that they knew more than the townies really.

Sometimes fools were thought of as being holy because they carried buried spiritual wisdom and were untouched by worldly matters. Our word “silly” comes from an older word “selig”, meaning holy. (Selly Oak was the holy oak).

Lady Day was one of the times of year for “hiring fairs”– in other words when agricultural workers’ job contracts started and ended. So, the date of April 6 was the day by which you had to have made the move to a new job, and was called “flitting day.” It’s another example of this time of year being the time for new beginnings.

April of course usually has Easter, which has traditions based on old spring festivals. It is planting time, as well. I learned always to plant my potatoes on Good Friday, and I still do it, more or less, maybe a bit later or earlier depending on the weather.

And “spring cleaning” also follows an old urge to start afresh around this ancient new year season. There are lots of traditions of charitable giving around this time too, such as the Maundy money.

Hot cross buns are one of the old traditions that still persists, though they probably don’t seem so special these days as when spices and dried fruit were rare and expensive.

Traditionally, Easter was the one day you absolutely had to go to church. It was a time for new clothes, yet another new start, and a tradition that remains in the Easter bonnet. It was a time of feasting, often on lamb, a luxury at this time of year. It’s certainly a good time to see lambs in the fields.

The old eating of eggs as a symbol of new life has been transferred to chocolate ones now! In fact, chocolate seems to have taken over a lot of our festivals (St Valentine’s, Mothering Sunday, Easter eggs, Advent calendars…)

While some of this is just commercialism, it does follow an older tradition of eating imported, luxury foods on feast days. Feasting is just as important as fasting.

Easter was the time for mummers’ plays called “Pace egging plays” (“Pace” from the Latin word for Easter). The plays usually included St George, who fights and is killed, then is “resurrected” by a young girl so he can fight again and kill the enemies of Christendom.

And the season lends itself to innumerable other festivities, from skipping, lifting people and hare-pie making to coconut-dancing and “scrambling” for thrown coins or food.

It seems as if at one time it was a huge release from the cold of winter and the privations of Lent, and everybody let their hair down. Certainly it was once more important than Christmas.

The same sort of exuberance happens in the Hindu spring festival of Holi and the Jewish Purim.

An odd little plant that is associated with Easter is the moschatel or town-hall clock. It is a little green flower with four outward-facing sections. It was seen as a symbol of Christian watchfulness.

It’s a lovely plant to find because it marks old undisturbed woodland, or the remnants of woodland. There is some near me in a dingle above Withybed, some along the canal near Tardebigge, some in Peck Wood and some on the path along the north of Upper Bittell Reservoir.

St George’s Day, April 23, is well known though surprisingly little celebrated for a national day. It is often associated with the oak tree, which comes into leaf at this time. The oak is also used as a symbol for England.

Look for mighty old oaks in Rowney Green, in The Meadows, and at the bottom of Scarfield Dingle. The 500-year old one in the Meadows has recently suffered from an unsympathetic cutting-back.

The rose which is supposed to symbolise England is, of course, never in flower here at this time. The flowers that are really blooming now are dandelions, cow parsley and forget-me-nots, all of which would be really suitable as national symbols, though the first two are often seen as weeds.

Dandelions, when left alone, flower once now and then die down. They are then no trouble for the rest of the year.

Eades Meadow, for example, starts off full of dandelions but if you go later they have been replaced by all the other more popular flowers. But if you try to pull them up, or mow them, they will keep coming back and be a nuisance.

Dandelions used to be grown for food, and still are in France. The leaves are very tasty and nutritious, and the flowers make a lovely wine. They are also great for butterflies and other insects.

Cow parsley fills the road and footpath hedges and even woodland in April. It is so beautiful that at one time people tried to rechristen it “Queen Anne’s lace”, instead of the more earthy cow parsley, but it didn’t really catch on.

It’s edible, like parsley, but children were often warned not to eat it because there are other poisonous plants that look similar.

St Mark’s Day, which follows on April 25, is hardly ever mentioned. Yet it gave its name to the St Mark’s fly.

You may think you don’t know this, but if you walk through fields at this time of year you will recognise it, often hovering over gateways. It is a large black fly with a hanging “undercarriage”. It looks hostile but is perfectly harmless.

In the countryside, the exuberance of April is everywhere. Bluebells fill old woodland later in the month, and you can take the once-a-year opportunity to visit Peck Wood, the best one around.

But lots of little corners of old woodland have bluebells (including the old part at the bottom of Newbourne Wood), and old hedges too. The far left hand side of The Meadows in Alvechurch has them, showing the old heritage of this piece of land.

One of my favourite trees in flower now is the wild cherry. This too grows in old woods and hedges, and newer ones like the plantings along the Alvechurch bypass and Redditch ring road. It is much celebrated in poetry and song (“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now…”), so beautiful that people often don’t think it is a native tree.

I especially love to catch a glimpse of it though the new green leaves of other woodland trees, as you do in Peck Wood and Newbourne Wood.


There is a different cherry, the bird cherry, which is common in the north of England and grows around here where there is more acid soil, near the Lickeys and Waseley Hills.

Of course, all the orchard trees will also be blossoming; plums and damsons at the start of the month, then pears and apples. This was once a major orchard area, especially around Tardebigge, and here in Withybed we have a great outburst of blossom at this time.

Other peculiarly April flowers include the gorgeous fritillary, the odd-looking goldilocks buttercup with its half-formed flowers, and the wood anemone which is spreading well in this area, on hedge banks as well as in woods.

I hope the weather is good enough for you to enjoy the exuberance of growth and new life at this lovely time of year.

Here is my latest poem, suiting the theme!

New beginnings
Here I go again. Spring, and I want the
First everything: snowdrop, crocus, blackthorn
Impatient for new life of green and white
I’ve always loved change, wanting to grow up,
Wanting to make life better, wanting to move.
Should this restless spirit trouble me?
No, because I know nothing is new
Nothing can come from nothing, as Lear said.
The blackthorn flower has grown from last years’ sun
The tree has been there since the sloe dropped
And grew, and that had been a blossom.
Everything changes. The spiral of life turns
And the start of each life holds the cells passed on.
So with my changes. I seem to have
Had several lives, but they are all still there.
In each new start the consequences stay
Of my past loves, defeats and everydays.
I look around the crowded function room
Music, home made, feeding us all
And there I am again at seventeen
Learning the songs from centuries ago.
I visit a museum, and there I am
In a photograph of the school choir
Hearing the voices round me lifting mine.
I watch the new growth sprouting green
From the fallen tree, which has not gone,
And the fungus taking sustenance from it
And know that nothing is ever new or old
But moving quietly, beneath our understanding.


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