There is a great expectancy in waiting for the snow to begin. Sometimes the snow comes with the wind when the trees are flailing and the Ruddock ruffles his breath beneath the trembling ivy. Then, the contours of the land become accentuated, blackened on the leeward side to eye-shocking contrast to the whiteness on each other. Each iron furrow stands in stark relief, a symbol of winter’s Herculean grip. And where the skimming flakes have hurled themselves upon the wooded hills, each twig upon every branch, each branch upon every tree, hugs close a spectral image and hazel coppices become an abstraction of diverging verticals.
Sometimes however, the snow comes upon us unheralded; its approach is silent; no movement is seen among the fields or felt upon the cheek. Somewhere below, the dormouse sleeps, and as the sparrow waits in the hedge I find myself walking with reverent steps as if, when in a house of worship, one feels the presence of the graven saints. Eventually I must pause in my tracks, feeling guilty of the very movement of my limbs when all else is still; and in the greyness of the sky there is but the faintest suggestion of pink. On a woodland bank the adventurous lesser periwinkle displays a solitary blue flower and from the old red-brick garden wall of the big house on the hill, the ivy casts down a leaf that slips rhythmically from side to side like the baton of the music teacher in the village school below. The leaf touches the ground and a snowflake touches the cheek. The eye is directed from the sky to the black background of the woods and a million flakes are seen; a million pieces of perfection yet each one different to the other. In the classroom below thirty pairs of wide eyes turn to the window and the rising undercurrent of excitement is checked by the teacher’s baton. I would indeed be guilty of a grave hypocrisy if I were to say that only young hearts flutter with excitement at this particular moment, for I too have never outgrown my love for the snow and look forward to the white, silent world to come.
Of course, snow brings with it its hardships as do the frosts, the winds and the rains. They bring discomfort and sometimes death to the aged, the sick and to the wildlife about us. But then so do the searing hot summers that parch the earth and lay heavy upon the fevered brow. Always there is something inimical to or destructive of life, yet at the same time and in many cases because of it, life is somehow strengthened. I remember how uneasy I once felt when harrowing a field of oats for the very first time. The teeth of the harrow clawed at the tender green shoots, breaking and bruising them, threatening to tear them bodily from the soil. Had I misunderstood my employer’s instructions? Was this really what he wanted me to do? And yet two months later, despite its apparent destruction, there stood before me a field of rippling, luscious green. If we were to hate all things that displayed an ugly side, there would be nothing left in the world to love.
This morning the window panes were covered with acanthus and the sun was a flat yellow disc that could be viewed without hurt to the eye. The mist seemed to smooth the scene into a two dimensional pasteboard picture which gave the impression that I could reach out and touch the pastel blue hills across the valley. I donned an additional thick-knitted woollen jersey, pulled on my gumboots and gloves and stepped from the warm steamy kitchen into the sparkling garden. The brilliance and frostiness of the air sent the blood racing to my cheeks and my ears began to tingle. In the piggery at the bottom of the garden, a mother sow with her nine three week old piglets were taking the air. The little ‘piggles’ as they were sometimes called in this area, were racing around with their snouts down, like little pink snow ploughs forging furrows in the frost encrusted snow. As I approached, their heads jerked up and, like tiny pink statues, they eyed me for a brief second before turning on their heels and hurtling across the piggery barking (or were they laughing) at the morning sun. The impression of nudity that young piglets must give must be seen to be believed, and the sight of these nude little bodies coursing through the snow set me shivering. I once heard of a sow who, in preference to the warm, dry sty supplied by her human master, built her nest in the corner of a field, and nothing on earth would induce her to return to the comfort of the ‘maternity’ ward. Early the following, bitterly cold, morning, she was found burrowed deeply within her nest with an army of piglets lined up at the milk bar with the most ridiculous expressions of contentment upon their faces. Not ten feet distant, a robin alighted on the solid water of the cattle trough and proclaimed the good news to the world.
However, it was too cold to stand watching the antics of these endearing little creatures (I dare not think of the hours wasted in this way during the warmer days) so I entered the lane that led to the fields. The dull klunk klunk of axe striking wood came to my ears and I saw through a gap in the snow-bound hedge the rhythmic rise and fall of my neighbour’s arm as he stooped over a pile of logs. The sound bounced across the fields to the woods and back again with such clarity, that I half expected the echo to continue as he laid his axe aside. He saw me, nodded at me and said, “Morning”. I nodded at him. “Morning”.
The countryman has an almost psycho-analytic method of extracting information from the unwary traveller. By a few pointed remarks or statements he finds out all he wants to know without having asked a single question. Having lived in the countryside for half my life, I have developed to a lesser degree the same technique. I did verbal battle with him for five minutes but my defences began to crumble when he said, “Better watch that plank over the stream, bound to be slippery with all that frost on it.”
“I expect it is,” I said, “Still, the tread of these boots is almost new.”
Now he knew where I was going, for the plank in question bridged the stream that ran along the north side of the woods.
“Surprising how much longer it takes to get across country when there’s frost and snow about.” He peered at me from the corners of his eyes. “Best get a move on or else you’ll be late.”
I gave in.
“That’s true, but then I’m only out for a stroll.”
Questioning my sanity, he returned to his chopping and I to my walk.
It has often been said by the townsman (although having spent most of my childhood in the grimy streets of Greenwich I no longer regard myself as a townsman) that the countryside is ‘all very well’ in summer, but ‘muddy, dismal and uninteresting’ in winter. Muddy it may well be, but it is clean mud, untainted by diesel oil, slime and soot. As for being dismal, are they so blind they cannot see the beauty in a curtain of falling rain brushing the distant hills, or hear the music of a million drops of water among the shining leaves or smell the fragrance of freshly dampened earth? Can they not see the beauty that I see now, of glistening white lacework of the frosted elms against a crystal clear sky, and undulating fields of virgin snow, pure and smooth, a countenance of innocence that has yet to bear the mark of man’s impropriety?
In the days of winter when the hedgerows are empty and the ditches and river banks laid bare, one can discover more easily the badger’s sett or the otter’s holt. One is able to make a mental note of where the blackbird is likely to build his nest; perhaps the disused nest of a song thrush now exposed by the skeletal hedge will eventually house the spotted white eggs of the blue tit in the warm days of May to come. Close scrutiny of tree and bush will reveal a host of living green buds wrapped tightly in their protective coats; life is expanding beneath the frozen ground, straining to burst forth, and even as the blackbird sings, the lambs are falling. The countryside in winter is not dead; there is life, vibrant and pulsing as the blood in one’s veins. It is all around, above one’s head and below one’s feet. It is not winter that dispels life, but life that dispels winter. The immigrant swift brings with it the warm southern winds and life throughout the land erupts, forcing the icy blasts, the snows and the frosts into the North Atlantic. And after all, without winter, there would be no spring.
read the collected work as it is published: here
black & talking wormhole: returning home handsome
blackbird & echo & fields wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J Redford – A Sign of the Times
blue & rain & sky wormhole: the too big moon
branches & wind wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – … as the new town marches in
death & white wormhole: the 19th century
eyes & morning & sun wormhole: traffic lights and broad avenue
garden wormhole: what life went on
green & grey & life & red & silence & walls & windows wormhole: did I get old?
hills wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J. Redford – A Precious Moment
kitchen & school wormhole: hello, luvvey, do you want a cup of tea?
love & sound wormhole: new-found love – poewieview #36
pink wormhole: languidly close the portal
snow wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J. Redford – Contents
sparrows wormhole: tired
stillness wormhole: the sounds of 1969 // [would have] seemed that way – poewieview #13
trees wormhole: was there a moon / on the alleyway wall / confused in front of / the city skyline?
valley wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – moment
winter wormhole: The Boats of Vallesneria by Michael J. Redford – Autumn Thoughts
world wormhole: let it all go
yellow wormhole: magnificent salad