In The Beginning of Spring set in 1913 Moscow Penelope Fitzgerald writes of the Russian thaw, ‘… the first sign of spring that couldn’t be mistaken had been a protesting voice, the voice of the water, when the ice melted under the covered wooden footpath between the house and the factory. The ice there wasn’t affected by the stoves in the house or the assembly-shop furnace, the water freed itself by its own effort, and once it had begun to run in a chattering stream, the whole balance of the year tilted over. At the sound of it his heart used to leap.’ Apart from the metaphorical power of this passage and its beautiful arrangement of clauses, this is a powerful evocation of spring, one which I don’t think we have experienced yet in 2013 because this April strikes me as the cruellest. Last week huge icicles dangled like stalactites from the tors even when the sun shone and the sky was blue. That north-east wind, called the wind from the feet of the dead in Welsh, freezes what it touches.
At the weekend, on our way to the British Museum to see the Ice Age Art exhibition we passed Pushkin’s house where a Russian-looking couple were taking each other’s photos. I remember that Pushkin wrote, ‘I am not fond of spring/ The tiresome thaw, the stench, the mud – spring sickens me.’ In the wonderful exhibition it struck me that even home must’ve been very unsafe to humans during the Ice Age, one long struggle with bears and cave lions (unless you had a good fire going) and with the extreme cold and maybe no signs of much spring to relieve their lives, only the lengthening and shortening of days. Yet they seemed to love the wild animals and depicted them with precision and such obvious affection… the horses, ibex and wolverine, even mammoths and lions.
In a minor way comparatively, were it not for the length of the day, you wouldn’t know it was spring yet here. A thrush valiantly sings on from dawn throughout day light hours with only brief breaks. Wood anemone and the earlier wood sorrel that, by now, should really be starring the paths are no more than green pinpricks beneath the leaf mould. Only dogs’ mercury, tough and green flowered, dares brave the cold frosts and flurries of snow that we’ve had. Frogspawn has gone mouldy or has vanished and I can think of only two places where the tadpoles have hatched and lie like iron filings at the bottom of a puddle. On the surface, the birds seem quite resilient and only fall silent or make themselves scarce when snow is falling. Starlings come to our tree to have a good scout around and they whistle, click, saw like the story of the Musicians of Bremen. The early nesters like the robin and the wren have lost their eggs to the biting cold; roe deer in their dark winter coats become more and more daring in order to steal themselves some bites of grass; the ewes cry for food whenever there is the sound of a tractor and regularly escape from the fields looking for food or fun because they are driven to distraction by the boredom of no grass. Foxes and badgers cannot dig. In the lanes and on the moors there is the sound of crows yattering and ravens cronking but, away from human habitation, the smaller birds are not yet filling the air with spring song.
One shred of hope is the blackbird I spotted diving into the tangle of dry clematis stems with bits of fluff and twig in his beak. And at the weekend in a garden centre among the plants for sale I saw one honey bee. Will the swallows know from far away not to arrive yet (please not yet) as there are, as yet, no insects for them to feed on after their long journey?
In The Beginning of Spring (which is set in the year Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed, ie one hundred years ago) the rite of unsealing the windows is momentous: ‘Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.’ Our own rites of spring are yet to come.