In the last two weeks spring finally arrived, with a period of high pressure that brought warm sunshine, temperatures in the teens and buds and blossom that, after the severe cold of this past winter, seem to shout, ‘we’re back, we made it’.  I think it’s only since I retired that I’ve come to really, deeply appreciate the spring again.  ‘Again’ because, after the working years when you’re more attuned a daily, weekly or monthly routine, with retiirement the changes of the seasons become more tangible, as they seemed in childhood.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In full-grown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
– Philip Larkin: The Trees

I remember how, as a kid in the fifties, with my brother and sister, in spring we would set out on long country walks and be away from home for hours (no fears for parents then).  Everything seemed yellow and white and bright: celandine and marsh marigold, wood anenome and hawthorn.

Then there were the astonishing drifts of blue that carpeted the woodland floor in the local bluebell wood.  We’d ramble through meadows and along river banks that are gone now, lost under suburban housing estates.  The poignancy of these memories is captured in the lyrics of Verdelle Smith’s overlooked 1966 classic, ‘Tar and Cement’:

The town I came from was quiet and small
We played in the meadows where the grass grew so tall
In summer the lilacs would grow everywhere
The laughter of children would float in the air

As I grew older I had to roam
Far from my family, far from my home
Into the city, where lives can be spent
Lost in the shadows of tar and cement.

And every night I’d sit alone and learn
What loneliness meant
Up in my rented room above the world
Of tar and cement.

Each day I’d wake up and look at the sky
Think of the meadows where I used to lie
Then I’d remember all of that’s gone
You’re in the city, you better push on
Get what you came for, before it’s too late
Get what you came for, the meadows can wait.

Many years later, tired at last
I headed for home to look for my past
I looked for the meadows, there wasn’t a trace
Six lanes of highway had taken their place
Where were the lilacs and all that they meant
Nothing but acres of tar and cement.

Yet I can see it there so clearly now
Where has it gone?
Yes I can see it there so clearly now
Where has it gone?
Where are the meadows?
Where are the lilacs?
And where is the tall grass?
The laughter of children?
Nothing but acres
Of tar and cement

Larkin’s poem seems perverse with its talk of death and the assertion that the spring greenness ‘is a kind of grief’.  But this season of renewal must also be a time to take stock of transience and loss.  At the age I am now it is reasonable and not at all melancholy to think that, if I’m lucky, I will see this rebirth another 15 or 20 times.  And after a winter like the last one, we can note what was lost to the intense cold: those palms killed in parks and gardens, and, in our case, fuchsia and rosemary.

But now, as ‘the recent buds relax and spread’, there is another sense in which the turn of the season marks passing time.  A quarter of a century ago, in our front garden we planted a magnolia.  In the last few years it has finally come into full glory: a shimmering cascade of pink and white that illuminates the living room with a light as bright as arc lamps.  Planting a tree really is an act of faith in the future: with luck, this tree will outlive us to provide pleasure to those who inhabit this house, this street, after we’re gone.  Seeing it, I reflect that this is one of the most satisfying things I have done in my life.

Rob Penn wrote a lovely piece about the coming of spring in this week’s Observer:

Observing the coming of spring is part of the British condition. I’m told it’s the moment in the year when expats pine for home the most: Oh, to be in England/ Now that April’s here, Robert Browning wrote in Home-thoughts, from Abroad in 1845. There is satisfaction in knowing that its arrival is timeless: a joy identical to me and to someone who inhabited the iron age hill fort a mile from my home, 2,750 years ago.

Exactly 275 years ago, we started documenting it. In 1736, Robert Marsham saw the first swallow of the year wheeling and banking over the open fields at Stratton Strawless in Norfolk, eating insects on the wing in celebration of having completed an epic, 6,000-mile journey from southern Africa. Marsham wrote the event down, in effect inventing a new field of study, phenology – the effects of cyclic and seasonal phenomena on plants and animals. Marsham recorded 26 “Indications of Spring”, as he called them, without interruption, for 62 years. He noted the dates different trees first came into leaf, blossom and flowers came out, frogs first croaked and butterflies appeared.

In collating his observations, Marsham, a friend of the more famous naturalist Gilbert White, crystallised a British fascination. It’s a fascination that could be as old as the seasons themselves and which is still manifest today, not least in the popularity of the BBC series Springwatch.

Returning to that earlier thought: one of the aforesaid Robert Marsham’s legacies is the Great Cedar, which he planted in 1747 as an 18 inch sapling.  When it was last measured in 2000, the tree had attained a height of 102 feet and a circumference of 23 feet.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Despite the losses, so much has survived the harsh winter – both plants and birds.  Against expectations, this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch reveals that, despite the coldest winter for 30 years, populations of many of Britain’s smaller garden birds have actually increased.  Walking back from the newsagent with the dog this morning, I was pleased to see a sizeable flock of goldfinches in Croxteth Grove.

I had just passed a recently renovated property, converted into apartments, outside which was a sign – Grove Suites.  The developer had invested in a pair of wrought iron gates on which, emblazoned in gold lettering, was this: Grove Suits.

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh!

3 thoughts on “The Trees: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’

  1. “Larkin’s poem seems perverse with its talk of death and the assertion that the spring greenness ‘is a kind of grief’.”

    That seems to have several resonances: TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’, ‘Burial of the Dead’ “April is the cruellest month” and the Christian relation to spring as ‘Easter’ [name invented by Bede?] when Jesus Christ is crucified, the event a throwback to the ‘dying gods’ of antiquity.

  2. “Mixing memory and desire”

    That’s what it’s all about – looking back fondly but ruefully; looking forward hopefully but fearfully.

    We lost our rosemary too

    1. I’ve added some photos of celandine and wood anenome taken today on a walk in Rivacre Valley on the Wirral. The last two respondents have referenced TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’; here’s the passage:
      April is the cruellest month, breeding
      Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
      Memory and desire, stirring
      Dull roots with spring rain…

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