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HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Shivering through spring

Notes from the Sticks: Shivering through spring

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HERE we are in the middle of May and I am still wearing my thermal vest. We have had frost nearly every night until the last few days and even now it is really too cold for my geraniums. I have put them out anyway because there comes a point when they start getting leggy indoors and their roots are bursting out of the little plastic packs they come in. (I rarely try overwintering them.) I put supermarket ‘bags for life’ over the pots when it is very cold which looks a bit odd but seems to do the trick. I imagine the plants are quietly grumbling but they are still with us. My poor gunneras, which I thought had gone for a burton, are at last showing a leaf or two but they look very sorry for themselves. This is them on May 15 last year

and this is them yesterday, exactly a year later. One leaf is visible on the top of the left-hand plant.

I had no idea that there could be such a range in plant growth and I am still not sure that they will make it.

The one good thing is that the climate change mob have put a sock in it for the time being. I know they want to pin low temperatures on man-made global warming but perhaps they are having to accept that this is just a bout of cold weather like we have always had. 

Anyway to show that this really is a late spring, on Friday I was on the bank of the Ribble near here when I noticed clouds of flies in the air.  They were instantly recognisable as St Mark’s flies (Bibio marci) because their long back legs dangle in flight. Believe it or not, although this is their defining feature, I could not find a picture. I took a short video which comes under the heading of ‘better than nothing’. 

Video edited on Kapwing.

They are called St Mark’s flies because they usually emerge on or around St Mark’s Day which is April 25, so they are a good two and a half weeks late. Like so many insects they have a very short adult life, about one week, during which time they mate and the females lay eggs. If you see them don’t worry, they don’t bite or sting. They are quite sizeable so provide good snacks for fish. Incidentally some people call them hawthorn flies and indeed when I saw them they were all over a hawthorn hedge.

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While I was on the river bank I was lucky to see the native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in its three shades, blue (the most common), white (quite a few round here) and pink (these are the only ones I have seen this year) close enough to get in one picture.

When we lived in south London our garden was home to the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which is a real thug. It is bigger and bolder than the native bluebell (you can see comparison pictures here) and although it is quite impressive in flower, it is determined to take over and is almost impossible to get rid of. Every year I dug and pulled up tons of the wretched things and every spring they came back completely undeterred. I have not seen any here in Lancashire, but wildlife organisations warn that they are hybridising with the native ones to form a cross called Hyacinthoides x massartiana which looks very like the native one, but might threaten its existence by out-competing it and diluting the gene pool. 

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This week I saw my first swifts of the year. I wrote about these wonderful birds last year when I noted my first sighting was on May 5. By fortunate coincidence I had an email on Tuesday (May 11) from reader Malcolm Carter, who wrote: 

‘Today my partner drove us to our local market town. As a person who is housebound with disability I am used to living in a perpetual state of house-arrest. This was my first visit for several months and I was shocked to discover the smoking remnants of Johnson’s lockdown policy. Shops boarded, many to let, the local building society complex desolate, co-opted to a vaccine centre.

‘We parked on the once-vibrant high street. My partner left to pay money into the bank. There was no queue – cash has gone; a remnant of when communities like this thrived on the colourful locals who traded at the market stalls and cattle auction.

‘Characters from a Peter Howson painting trudged past. Heavy brows wore the strain of 15 months of behavioural insight assault; exhausted, stressed and afraid.  Older masked couples stuttered along, clinging to each other like life rafts.  Universally it was the pavement upon which people’s gaze seemed fixated. They shed despair; it seeped through the vents, visceral.

‘Then suddenly a cacophony: through the sun roof half a dozen swifts – the first of the year – arced in jubilance over the town hall. They were four days earlier than those described 46 years ago in Ted Hughes’s sublime poem. But their message was clear – despite what some might have you believe, “The globe’s still working, the Creation’s still waking refreshed, our summer’s still all to come” – if only we can look up . . .’

Here’s the poem, ‘Swifts’: 

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,

Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades

Sparkle out into blue —
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,

Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.

Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails

Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling

On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage

Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting. Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
Finally burial
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —

The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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