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.
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