In the latest in my long-read essay series, a look back to the lockdown spring of 2020, and forward to a season of renewed hope: the unique season that is the British springtime.
In February and March 2020, I travelled to India to complete a small research project. By the time I had returned again to the UK, the human world had begun to experience its first lockdown spring. As we sat out the pandemic the non-human world continued nonchalantly to turn. One globe spun and tilted, making the days and the seasons happen and calling the birds from across the deserts; the other ground to half-speed, stretching the days and nights, casting the planes from the skies and emptying the streets.
It was an impression heightened by the timing of the human lockdown – coinciding exactly with the European spring, the moment of maximum exuberance among our non-human cohabiters. This is best experienced through all senses combined, but if, in lockdown, the cool touch of April rain is unavailable and the scents of the forest too distant; should the pointillism of flowers and butterflies be too pixelated in landscapes beyond reach or cityscapes too closed-in, still an open window at first light will reveal enough of the essence of the season through music.
The special character of the spring in Britain is due to its lying at a more northerly position than its inhabitants appreciate. Where I live, Yorkshire is in the middle latitudes, at 53°35’N. If one were to follow that line east across the North Sea to reach Germany west of Hamburg, already the average January temperatures are a few degrees lower, frequently below zero. In northern Poland mid-winter rarely sees temperatures rise to a thaw; then everywhere east of there, in Belarus and Russia the land is ice-locked for weeks without relent. Even at the far edge of Eurasia, on the Pacific coast at Kamchatka, the four months from December to March see average high temperatures stay between -5°C and -2°C. The line crosses the northern Pacific to reach Unalaska Island, Alaska. Here, ocean influences raise the January average high, to a few degrees below what we experience in West Yorkshire.
For anyone continuing east along the line, the relative balm is extremely short-lived. After crossing Graham Island and the low-lying western edge of the Canadian province of British Columbia the continental influence holds sway once more. By Edmonton, Alberta the temperatures drop below -20°C on 24 days out of 365, on average. The ice grip worsens further, eastwards across Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec to Churchill Falls in Labrador and the Atlantic Ocean at North River.
Only once back across the Atlantic do we experience midwinter conditions even marginally more clement than those we left behind. We complete our circumnavigation with landfall at the Renvyle peninsula, County Galway, separated from home by a final 364 miles comprising a slice of Ireland, the Irish Sea and Lancashire. It is the ocean itself, and then only a stream within the ocean, whose waters bring with them what remains of the tropical warmth of their origin in the Gulf of Mexico, that creates the British winter and sets up the slow onset of spring.
Birdsong is the defining soundtrack to spring, but here in Britain one doesn’t have to wait until the birds return from Africa to hear it. There are many birds who never leave to fly south, because here they find the winter is liveable enough. So the aptly-named song thrush may start to reclaim his territory amid the frosts of February and even the tiny, insectivorous wren will have hurled its voice through the woods for many weeks by the time the migrants arrive.
Everywhere on Earth gets the same half-share of daylight, once allowance is made for the twilight-creating effect of the atmosphere and the interference of mountains; and for the fact that we live on a less than perfect sphere. We plot our position on the globe not by how much light we receive, but how it is allocated over time. At the equator we receive the same daily ration, day in day out throughout the year and across epochs. At the poles, the whole year’s allocation comes in a single 6-month instalment, before a 6-month long night arrives on a date fixed eons ago. There is no spring there: at the highest latitudes north or south it is summer and then it is winter. You could say that it is summer every other day: if day is defined by light and not by clock-time.
However, in the high latitudes of northern Scandinavia and Russia, the Sámi people recognise not two seasons but eight, so tuned are they to the underlying subtleties in the cycles of their environment. Tjakttadálvie is early winter, a time of wandering; Dálvvie is winter, a time of caring; Gijrradálvvie is early spring, a time of awakening; Gijrra, spring, a time of returning; Gijrragiessie, early summer, a time of growth; Giessie, high summer, a time of contemplation; Tjakttagiessie, early autumn, a time of harvesting; and Tjaktta is autumn, a time of change.
There is something fractal about the resonances between planetary and solar-systemic machinations and their analogues at worldlier scales. Vibrations of colour, matter and sound may circumscribe the entire universe of a leaf, yet they originate in the gravity of the planet out of whose soil it grows, and that of the sun around which it travels, and whose light it absorbs. Within its tissues that same light becomes the power source for an industrial process, the manufacture of sugars that in turn fuel the engines that, once revved, make insects fly.
In the lockdown spring of 2020, I would sometimes sit writing in the shade provided by a hundred thousand leaves – on a hawthorn tree as it happens – watching tens of millions more. The view from my desk, which I would take outside and cart across two fields that I might write at the edge of a small wood, was a restricted one, by my choice. My house in its hamlet was not far away, but was hidden from my line of sight. I would occupy the floor of a dip in the landform; behind me and on two more sides are trees; to my left, the field curves uphill from there, and I can see only half of its one acre, and above it only sky. I would focus inward therefore:
A small spider has appeared on my desk. It is an agile jumper and intricately patterned: each leg is covered in white hairs and finely flecked dark brown; its two palps are purer white contrasting with two coal-black, forward-facing eyes and its shiny black head on which is emblazoned a white anchor-mark. Its abdomen is shaped somewhat like an egg, milk chocolate in colour with three lateral white hoops. I have no idea of its identity.
The afternoon sun has highlighted a small sycamore tree that is about fifteen yards away, close enough for each leaf – none quite fully extended for the summer to come – to be discernible. I notice that for every leaf that is fully lit, there are others that receive its shadow. The triangles that combine to create the leaf’s palmate plan are themselves composed of triangles. Each leaf’s outer edge circumscribes a shape that contains within it a shadow-projection of the same shape, belonging to the leaf above. The pattern of shadow-green on sunlit-green is as intricate as any kaleidoscopic image, and unique to the instant. The young sycamore tree is itself shaped by triangular projections formed by its lateral branches, and is therefore leaf-shaped, an elongated version of its own leaves. Leaf-shape and tree-shape combine to ensure that all parts receive their share of light in the course of the day; while the coursing of the days and the seasons ensure an equal share of light around the planet.
For about twenty minutes the sycamore’s sharp shape became blurred at its upper right-hand edge. During that time the first few inches of the tree’s air was occupied by a delicate mist that, on closer inspection comprised a socially-distanced swarm of dancing insects. They mesmerised me with their buoyant hovering, each describing looped curves that extended about four inches vertically, and swaying laterally with and against the breeze. They held their very long, delicate, white antennae curved forwards. Collectively they gave the impression of a vague and uncoordinated milling, but at a higher resolution, I could see they stayed evenly spaced, seeming to respond to leaf, light and each other according to an algorithm that only they could compute. They looked black, until I noticed that their wings were iridescent, flashing bright green at certain angles to the sun. They were male green longhorn moths, assembled for their afternoon lek, to try to coax a female into their grasp.
The spider, by the way, was Salticus scenicus, which would appear to indicate some kind of Greco-Roman theatrical dancer, but in English it is usually called zebra-back jumping spider. The time it took me to write two more paragraphs was the time it took Twitter to improve the sum of my arachnological knowledge by a considerable percentage, adding the name of one more species.