Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Glory in the splendour that is the month of May


Writing about the natural world is of necessity seasonal. Social Studies, say, or Economic Studies need make no reference to the time of year, but when your theme is Nature you can scarcely avoid it. And having now written 51 weekly examples of Nature Studies, beginning in late April last year with reflections on the blackthorn, and moving on through harebells in high summer, sweet chestnuts in autumn and alpine birds in mid-winter, I find myself back where I began, blossom-surrounded and birdsong-showered – knocking on the door of May.

May has a fair claim to be the most remarkable month of the calendar. People have certainly thought so, down the centuries, for May has been celebrated in a way no other month has, in many cultures. Consider: along with much of Europe, we have a Maypole; we do not have a Junepole, or an Aprilpole.

My own first encounter with the specialness accorded to May came through Christianity, learning as a young Catholic that the month was associated with Mary, the mother of Christ. We sang a hymn, "Bring Flowers of the Fairest", with the chorus:

O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,

Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May

The association is strong in Catholicism – May is often referred to as "Our Lady's Month" – but it is possible that the devotion may have roots even older than Christianity and is in essence a transposition, into the new religion, of the Roman festival of the Floralia, the springtime celebration of Flora, one of the goddesses of flowers and fertility. For there has been an ancient, near-universal tendency in Northern Hemisphere cultures for this time of the year to be venerated.

Yet I have the impression that in modern urban society, the sense of the specialness of May has been all but lost. You may reply that on the contrary, May Day is a national holiday virtually everywhere, and of course it is, but this is something separate: in the majority of countries it is a festival for organised labour, with origins in late 19th-century industrial disputes in the US. What I mean is a feeling for, or a marking-out of, the month of May as an exceptional moment in the rhythms of the Earth.

What exactly is this moment? It's not just beauty, although that's part of it, as the beauty of the natural world now reaches a peak. It's something else, and I think you can start to understand it if you observe wildlife closely in the coming weeks, so I will suggest four Maytime organisms, any of which repays observation (which I accept is not always easy): a tree, a bird, an insect and a fish. The tree is the hawthorn, with its white flowers, familiarly known as May blossom; the bird is the nightingale; the insect is the mayfly; and the fish is the brown trout.

Something special can be sensed in the way all four live their lives in May. The hawthorn blossom, which, remember, is the exhibition of the tree's reproductive organs, is rich and luxuriant, and garlands hedgerows across whole landscapes; if the earlier blackthorn blossom looks like sprinkled sugar, May blossom looks like cream, poured unstintingly.

The nightingale's song, the mesmerising call for a mate which I wrote about recently, is so powerful that at dead of night in a woodland it seems to fill the world.

The mayfly, loveliest of the aquatic insects, butterfly-sized and muslin-winged, spends a year as a larva in the gravel bed of rivers, then hatches explosively from the water surface in thousands, to mate and die in a single day.

And the brown trout? It attacks the mayflies, doing so in rocket-like surges, rising to slash the water surface in an uncontrollable paroxysm of greed, making any watcher aware that the river is full of vibrant fish.

This blossoming, singing, mating and hunting are in May so dynamic and vital that they make obvious something we are not often aware of. It's something you might think has semi-mystical or New Age connotations, which might lead you to dismiss it, but really it is straightforward and sits behind all living things: it is the life-force. It is an enormous power, able to transform the whole planet every year, entirely unstoppable; yet in May it can be glimpsed even in small creatures. That is the exceptional moment: May is the month when the life-force is made manifest.

People have sensed this and celebrated it for thousands of years; gazing into electronics screens, we have lost sight of it entirely. But it's still there of course, and if you switch the screen off and step outside, and look properly, you can find it all around you.

A great defender of the natural world

Hardly a headline on the day of the royal wedding, but notable nonetheless: Mark Avery has left the RSPB after more than a decade as conservation director. In recent years, especially since the retirement of Tony Juniper as director of Friends of the Earth, Mark has been the single most energetic defender of the natural world in Britain, willing to speak out constantly across the whole environmental agenda. He will be greatly missed.

But after a birding trip to the United States he intends to return as a writer, blogger and campaigner for biodiversity on an individual basis, and he has already taken advantage of the new medium of internet publishing to bring together the RSPB blogs he has been writing for the last two years as a book: Blogging for Nature. Find out how to get it, and find details of what Mark is doing, on

On a lesser note, I myself am leaving this column today, but not I hope on a permanent basis. I am off to write a book and will be back, God willing, in late June.;

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