Feb 1st always feels like a milestone in my year: winter isn’t over yet but the days are longer. It’s St Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc, one of the four Celtic Fire Festivals. I read that Imbolc means ‘in the belly’ and we can interpret that as we like for St Brigid herself represents divine feminity in all its various aspects.
There’s an old English saying …
February fill the dike,
Be it black or be it white;
But if it be white,
It’s the better to like.
But this year the only white is snowdrops on the sodden ground. I’ve noticed that they thrive when it’s cold and frosty. Winter hawthorns are black against the grey-white sky but pale yellow catkins are dancing along the slender, bendy hazel twigs; the robin’s beautiful but pugnacious song bursts from the holly tree up the lane. At dusk the song seems to keep the daylight going for a few minutes longer. Occasionally a blackbird starts to flute, thinks better of it and falls silent. A crow mutters and calls (in something like despair?) with his cracked voice from an old sycamore. Two ravens snigger and splutter at one another. Wrens dash from one side of the lane to another and a team of eleven blue-tits and great-tits lands on my bird feeder and eats everything, squabbling with any other bird who dares approach. And frogspawn is being spawned, sitting proud of the surface of the water, something like a blobby glob of water itself. As the black dots of tadpoles begin to eat through the jelly it will gradually dwindle and lie lower in the water, safe from frost.
As soon as it rains these days, Dartmoor (even on some steep slopes) looks like a shallow lake with tufts of grass and rocks showing through. You splosh when you walk and spray comes off the tip of your boot. (My feet get wet inside my leaky boots.) The moors look pale and washed out, green turf and coppery spent bracken, grey mists of lichen caught between charcoaly twigs, white skies. The distances are clouds. Where, oh where, I keep wondering, is the snow, frost and ice this year? Will it come late, or not at all?
Last week I saw a black glossy ibis probing his long, curved beak (like a proboscis, I thought as I watched through someone’s birdy telescope) into the marshy borders of the River Avon in South Devon. A local bird watcher told me how a goldcrest (the smallest bird in the UK) can fly from Cornwall to the Midlands in a day, so an ibis travelling from North Africa isn’t so very odd. We saw otter tracks and otter spraint (poo) which looked a bit like lichen and smelt surprisingly nice. It had mussel shell fragments in it. They said we would see kingfishers too but they had all vanished because there were too many people looking at the black glossy ibis. My friend Bruce Erde took a photo of this one in his garden in January and kindly let me show it here. Such colour even on the twigs!
The light is flowing back towards us now. The stars (when you can see them) are still frost bright. You might be able to see Mercury now if the clouds were to part. It is the innermost planet of our solar system, and we rarely get to see it. . The planet is at its greatest elongation in the sky on Jan 31st 2014 and should be should be shining in the evening sky for a short while above the new moon for about a week or so, setting about 90 minutes after the sun in northern latitudes. How is that for a conjunction with Chinese New Year? So much to celebrate on Feb 1st.