There is a mauve bloom on the alders and bright green buds winking on the larch. There is much afoot in the fields and hedges: life! The smell of it, the surge of it, a certain warmth and softness in the mornings, as though the mood of the air has changed. I look for it every year, so eagerly, so greedily, but I am sure I am not imagining it. It's coming.
Last week, there was a marvellous morning in the Black Mountains. Sun and scarves of high cloud, the fields singing in new bright colours, the mountains bold against the blue. You could feel the metamorphoses everywhere, but no one quite dared to name it. There is one daffodil out in the lane and all the others are swollen, the buds ready to burst gold wings. It is a most thrilling time; the seasons feel balanced on the edge of every day. Another morning was grey again, a south-west wind blew with fine rain in it, like the brush of cobweb on your cheek. Even so, the birds were singing very early, in the dim. At dawn and dusk there is a feel of widening light.
At night, the roads are busy with toads. By mid-March they will be out in force, but just after dark we catch the advance parties in the headlights. They have one or two big jumps in them, predictable in direction if not timing. Should you encounter one when driving, aim to pass the lower end, the back.
The first flash of spring is a sexy, provocative time. Heads come up, gazes are raised in curiosity and enquiry. What are Rome, New York or Paris in the spring if not cities for new lovers, for affairs? And the painters come out, beguiled by the sprays of new buds.
I have been watching the pussy willow, its soft fists unclenching to reveal little tufts like white cotton. After our fierce and full winter it would be wonderful to have a real symphony of spring. The snowdrops have been wonderfully promising. They seem so valiant in their drive through the stalky mulch of dead nettles, up to the light. They are like choirs at first, so pure, heads hung devoutly – then the petals spread and they turn into lop-eared white rabbits. I found some excellent crocuses, sky-pale and gold centred, like egg cups. Half way up the mountain, beside a south-facing track, the primroses are out.
Ask anyone today if they can feel the season coming and they will probably express more hope than comfort, as if superstitious, as if talking about it might frighten it off and summon the snow – "lamb snow", as they used to call it in Wales. It has already crossed the Mediterranean, though. Now is the beginning of "The English Season" in Marrakesh, where the wealthy and impatient went for the first fine sun. It has been sunglasses weather south of the Alps – I saw a peacock butterfly 10 days ago in Verona, trembling on a yellow wall. It seems extraordinary that any such creature survives the ice and snow.
In Sicily, where spring was born, it has been hot. Primavera, the Italians call it, a word that catches all its force and triumph, and it is the title of Sandro Botticelli's most wonderful picture, painted around 1492: a woman as fair as any goddess, in a dress as gorgeous as has ever been made or imagined, strides through a dark wood, scattering flowers. She looks both virginal and pregnant. No one has ever painted spring better, except perhaps in words. This from the King James Bible's version of the "Song of Solomon":
For lo the winter is passed, the rain is over and gone
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green
Figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
The turtle is a dove, of course, but I rather like the momentary ambiguity. And if turtles could sing, surely the coming of spring would be the moment to hear them. For the laureate of the changing seasons in our own land I would nominate John Clare. In "First Sight of Spring", he notes "The hazel blooms, in threads of crimson hue", and describes a squirrel which "sputters up the powdered oak", and
... hisses fierce, half malice and half glee,
Leaping from branch to branch about the tree
In winter's foliage moss and lichens drest.
The poet is exact. The bright and often tiny possibilities of spring are arresting because they arise from and amid winter's shades. Now is a perfect time of year for mosses and lichens. In a deep, wet, clawed wood of twisted roots by the Cleddau estuary last week, the moss was lucent and the lichens like soft-horned corals were so alive against the dormant browns of the trees. There was a woodcock there, and I saw a dipper, in the morning. They are both year-round residents (though woodcock numbers are augmented in the winter by an influx from the Continent). But while the whirring flight of the latter reminds me of winter, I bet the dipper looks forward to warmer streams and longer days, and that is what it made me think of. They are like starling-sized wrens, which just happen to enjoy swimming, and walking up stream beds. In this overlapping moment, when our winter migrants have not quite gone, and summer's are yet to arrive, any walk in the country or a park is a treat of possible surprises.
"A green Christmas means a full churchyard", they say in the country. At least we do not have to worry about that this year. But perhaps one is right to feel a trepidation at the almighty power of spring to rearrange, and revolutionise. "The trees are coming into leaf," Philip Larkin wrote in "The Trees", "Like something almost being said... Their greenness is a kind of grief...".
The annual rebirth of trees is a kind of trick. "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh," the poem ends, mimicking the wind through the freshly leafed "castles". He has an extraordinary blend of dry clarity and romantic sensibility (perhaps this is why the British, particularly the English, love him): quite unlike my other hero, Shelley, who was so far over to the romantic side that in "Ode to the West Wind" he saw spring in an autumn walk: "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"
We know the answer, and it is impossible, in this gripping and desperate time of change to the south of us, not to hope Shelley's revolutionary hymn will not prove a prophesy for all those who have risen against their oppressors, and for those considering it. I do not know if the upsurging desire for liberty across north Africa had anything to do with the coming of the natural new year, which begins almost two months earlier there. There have certainly been other uprisings in the spring, in Prague and Paris. Perhaps, having endured and survived the winter, humans hesitate to bow to the yoke again. We clean and throw out, we move house – traditionally there were spring carnivals in cities such as Venice; the population would mask themselves, dress up and behave badly, while the church turned a sensibly blind eye.
St David's Day falls on Tuesday, an orchestra of daffodils heralding choppy, windy March and blasting away this misty mizzle. And who knows what else spring will bring? I wish you all the joy of it, anyway.
Horatio Clare is the author of 'Running for the Hills' and 'A Single Swallow'Reuse content