The Turn of The Year
When one hears of "the dead months," of "dead December" and "bleak January," the best corrective is to be found in the coppice or by the stream-side, by the field-thicket, in the glens, and even on the wide moors if the snow is not everywhere fallen, a coverlet so dense and wide that even the juniper has not a green spike to show, or the dauntless bunting a clean whin-branch to call from on the broomieknowe. Even the common sayings reveal a knowledge hidden from those to whom winter is "a dead season" . . . and it is a continual surprise to find how many people believe that from the fall of the leaf or the first sleet and snow, till the thrush doubles and trebles his note in the February wet-shine, that bird and insect and all green life have gone, that all Nature is dead or asleep. Thus, for example, "as keen in the hearing as a winter-plover " must have been uttered, when first said, by a watcher of the multi-form bird-life of our winter-fields and fallow lands, one who knew that the same drama of life and death is enacted in midwinter as in midspring or midsummer, a drama only less crowded, less complex and less obvious, but not less continual, not less vital for the actors. Who that has watched the peewits seeking worms on ploughed lands at midwinter, and seen them poise their delicate heads and listen for the phantom rustle of a worm in this clod or under yonder fallow, while the greedy but incapable seamews, inland come from frostbound coasts or on the front of prolonged gales, hear nothing of "the red people" and trust only to bulk and fierce beak to snatch the prey from hungry plover-bills . . . who that has seen this can fail to recognise the aptness of the saying, "as keen in the hearing as a winter-plover"? Who that has watched the ebb and flow of lark-life, resident and immigrant; the troubled winterdays of the field-travellers (as the familiar word " fieldfare " means) and the wandering thrushes; the vagrant rooks, the barn-haunting hoodie; the yellow-hammer flocks and the tribes of the finch; the ample riverside life, where heron and snipe, mallard and moor-hen, wren and kingfisher, and even plover and the everywhere adaptable starling are to be found with ease by quick eyes and careful ears: who that has seen the sudden apparition of the bat, or the columnar dance of the ephemeridæ, or the flight of the winter-moth along the dishevelled hedgerows: or who that, besides the mistletoe and the ivy, the holly and the fir, the box and the late-flowering clematis, and many other of the green and flowering clans of the forest and the garden, has noted the midwinterblooming shepherd's purse, healing groundsel, bright chickweed, and red deadnettle, can think of Nature as lifeless at this season? When amid the rains and storms of December an old gardener, instead of saying that spring was on the move, remarked to me that "'Twill be starling days soon," he gave voice to a truth of observation as impressive as it is beautiful. For often December has not lapsed before the mysterious breeding-change of the Vita Nuova, the New Life that spreads like a flowing wave so early in the coming year will begin to be obvious on the dun-hued lapwing, on the inland-wandering gull, and even on one or other of the small "clan of the bushes" more dear and familiar to us. On none, however, is the change so marked as on the blithe starling, surely the bird of cheerfulness, for he will sing (does he ever cease that ever-varying call or flute or whistle of his?) when the lark cannot rise in the polar air, when the missel-thrush will not throw a challenge on the wet wind, and long before the most jubilant great-tit in the forest will ring his early tinkling bell under leafless boughs. For, even at Christmastide, though rarely perhaps quite so early, the dark bill will suddenly yellow, and a green and purple sheen will come over the russet plumage. Already Nature has looked northward again. And, when she looks, there is at once a first movement of the infinite sweet trouble of the New Life once more. The Creative Spirit is come again from the sunways of the South. "'Twill be starling days soon"--what is that but a homely way of saying that the old year has not lapsed before the new year has already stirred with the divine throes of rebirth. " The King is dead: Long live the King!" is the human analogue. There is no interregnum. The cuckoo may have fled before the swallow, the landrail before the wild swan, but during the grey ebb of Autumn ten thousand wings have rustled in the dawn as the migrants from oversea descend at last on our English and Scottish shores. A myriad host may have fled at the equinox, or lingered till the wet winds of the west and the freezing blasts of the north swept them from November; but on those east winds from Norway and the Baltic, from Jutland and Friesland, on those south winds leaping upward from the marshes of Picardy and the Breton heathlands and from all of the swarm-delivering South behind, on those southwest gales warm with the soft air of the isles of the West, and wet with the foam over lost Ys and sunken Lyonesse, what an incalculable host has come hitherward. Like great fans, the invisible pinions of the Bird-God, that Winged Spirit whom a Finnish legend images in continual suspense at the Crossways of the Four Winds, beat this way and that: so that when already the lament of the wild-geese in storm-baffled flight from the South ululates in our norland dawns, clouds of larks are gathered like dust from the North-Sea lands, and are blown upon our shores, a multitude of thrush turn westward, the rook and the hoodie rise on the Danish wind, and yonder shadow drifting over the woods of Norway is none other than ten thousand fieldfares whose congregation will soon be spilt like rain upon our fields and pastures.
When is the turn of the year? We have certainly not to wait till the missel-thrush calls down the wind on the moist southwester that comes in February. The changing seasons are indifferent to our calendars. Autumn may burn the lime and chestnut while Summer is still in her glory; Summer may steal back upon us through the September haze, or even after we have heard the dry rustle in the woods of October. We are familiar with the return of halcyon days when St. Luke's Peace follows the wind Euroclydon, or when St. Martin's Summer gleams like a quiet sunset on the stormy brows of Winter. In mid-December the gnat may still be seen spinning her dance by the hedgerow, the warmth-loving bat may still wheel through silent afternoon dusks, the robin will pitch his blithe song from holly to holly, the hedgesparrow will chase the winter- moth, the chaffinch will challenge the marauding tit. In January, when the snow-lids open and the blue is seen, a lark will spray his sudden music from far up in the pale azure, and as the long notes tinkle and the interwoven song falls down the blue invisible ways, we almost imagine that sky-glimpse to be the very face of Spring.
Thus we have to wait for no day on which to note from the calendar that the New Year is come, or on which to exclaim that Winter is gone and Spring has arrived. A day may come, in February, perhaps, when, suddenly, one will realise, as after sleep one realises one is awake, that the hands of the South are in the woods, that the eyes of the South are looking into the white sleep of blossom and flower, that the breath of the South has awakened love, has stirred music in the hearts of all the clans of song. But if we had not ourselves been asleep we should not have waited thus long for the exquisite surprise. We should have known the divine conspiracy by which the North and South are lovers, and the West comrade to the East. The conspiracy of the eternal passion by which power desires power, and dominion lusteth after dominion: so that all the effort of the North is to touch the lips of the South, all the dream of the East is to reach the sunset-gardens of the West. We should have known, when out of December frost or January snow the redbreast thrilled a canticle of joy, or the russet motb sought his wingless love in windless flame-set twilights, that the Grey Lover already felt the breath from those ardent lips. We should have realised that when across the snow-silence the fieldfares no longer edged southward, that when on the upland-pasture the lapwing began his bridal change and in the bare orchard the starling began to glisten as though he had bathed at the edge of the rainbow, or to wonder, in some ice-set mirror, at his dun beak now grown yellow as the sheltered crocus he knows of under the garden-yew . . . we should have realised that while this dark-browed barbarian from the North slept, the fair woman of the South had passed smiling by, and kissed him as she passed.
The breeding-change that may be seen even before Christmas. the January stir that becomes so obvious a week or so, or any day, after the New Year is come, here and now we are at the turn of the year. By mid-January, even, here and there, the songthrush and the missel may have begun to build, and even the great-tit's bell may tinkle in the coppice or wind-spared russet oakglade. Already the snowdrop and the Christmas-rose, the green-white aconite and the pale winter-iris are become old acquaintances: many a primrose may have adventured in shy retreats: any day a wandering minstrel will spill a tinkle of music from among the first yellow spray of hazel catkins, the hedgesparrow may unloosen song under the early-opening woodbine-buds, the corn-bunting may crack his fairy-hammer or the wren try his new-year flute among the yellowing gorse: any day, at the sight of the first nomad daisies or the first gay vagrant dandelion, the yellow-hammer may become a lover and a poet. It is this unchanging "any-day" element that redeems even the longest and dreariest midwinter; the sense of the ever-moving ichor in the eternal veins; the inward exultation at the ever-quickening and ever-slowing, but never-ceasing fans of life and death.
Yesterday, rain-fog; to-day, frost-mist. But how fascinating each. How vast and menacing the familiar oaks looked, leaning gigantic over dim lapsing hedgerows. How phantom-like and processional, the elms stealing into view one after the other; the birches disclosing tresses wet with dews from the secret woods they are gliding from to regain the secret lands beyond the misty river where I can hear the mallard call, like a sudden tocsin among the falling towers and silent avalanches of Cloudland.
It is desolate here, where I stand.
A long way off yet till the wood-thrush rings his falling chime from the April-Tree or French-Broom, as the laburnum is called in some parts of the Highlands. I know a wood where a great Bealaidh Fhrangach sleeps, to awake months hence in sun-gold beauty. The wood-thrush will be its flute. Already I have to-day cut a slip from a garden-laburnum, for a friend who wants "a flute of the April-Tree" (feadan na Craobh Abraoin). . . for there is no timber 'better for the whistlewood of the bagpipe than this. And what more fit for the Strayed Pan, if perchance he follow the Phantom Call in the Hills of the North? But see . . . the mist has gone like a haze from blue water. I hear starling-music over yonder in the Talamh nan Ramh, as Ossian calls the Country of the Woods. The Flute of the April-Tree, and snow at my feet! "The Flute of the April-Tree" : it has the yellow and white magic of Spring in it.