Nothing signifies spring quite like blossom mixed with birdsong

It’s long been hard to find an image for the peculiar intensity of spring

A A A

If we were looking, in the great tradition of modern advertising, for simple, instantly-graspable signifiers for the seasons, we would doubtless characterise summer by sunshine, autumn by falling leaves and winter by snow.

They would be universally accepted, would they not?  But spring is a tad more complicated. Any ideas?

Ultimately, I suppose, we would have to say “new life”, because after all, that’s what the word means, the beautiful word which we so take for granted: things springing up everywhere. But it’s trickier to find the specific image for springtime’s essence, which is that new life’s peculiar intensity, for a short period.

However, I thought I might have found it a few days ago, spending the weekend in Normandy. It’s a very green part of the world, is Normandy, with plenty of rain, as it’s in the same oceanic climate zone as Devon and Dorset, which it strongly resembles: in effect, it’s Wessex-over-the-water. Same pastoral landscapes, cathedral towns. Though there are differences.

One I noticed was the cowslips. Writing about cowslips verges on the comical, as they sound so old-fashioned-countryside you might almost be writing about milkmaids, and throw in an ooh-arr or two while you’re at it. But there was no getting away from them: they were there in their countless millions.

In Britain, I think of cowslips as flowers of fields and meadows, but last week in France I did not see a single cowslip in a field – some French plant ecologist could no doubt tell me why –  although I saw numberless field dandelions and buttercups; instead, the cowslips covered the roadside banks.

In the 20 miles from the small cathedral town of Sées, to Mortagne-au-Perche (world capital of the black pudding!), they intermittently lined the route, and then in the countryside south of Mortagne, where we were staying – the lovely, wooded region of The Perche, known to few Brits – they just carpeted every verge in golden yellow. Other good stuff was appearing in the roadside verges too, the pale mauve petals of lady’s smock, the white stars of stitchwort, the first dark spikes of early purple orchids; but what impressed me most was the blossom.

Normandy is a land of fruit trees, and even though, after a March which was as wintry there as here, the pink-and-white apple blossom is still not out, the pure white cherry and plum blossom was spectacular. The old farmhouse where we were staying had a mini-orchard of 14 trees and the branches were, as AE Housman famously said of his own cherry tree, “hung with snow”.

Yet there was another great blossoming, too, and that was in sound: the birdsong was fabulous, and we woke to a chorus of blackbirds and song thrushes, robins, wrens and chaffinches, but best of all, a blackcap. This is a wee warbler, as I find myself being drawn into saying, a bird I have written about here before because it has started to winter in Britain, and it has the most mellifluous, melodious song you can imagine: some people prefer it to the nightingale.

The blackcap sang unseen in the garden, mainly from deep in a hedge, but on Sunday morning it began to sing, still unseen, from the most gloriously blossoming of all the cherry trees. I was struck dumb with delight.  Here was this God-given, breathtaking tree, and now it seemed to be making a God-given, breathtaking sound.

I had one of those moments when something dawned on me – aren’t we meant to call them epiphanies, these days? – and it was that I was witnessing the very heart of spring.  Blossom with birdsong.

So, for three of the seasons, easy, familiar signifiers: sunshine, falling leaves, snow. But for springtime, the most stirring of them all, something more singular to symbolise it: birdsong with blossom.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence