Bita kaulo munthos
A Romany name for February is Bita kaulo munthos – little black month. The last of the dark months of winter, in Margaret Atwood’s poem February, she calls it, ‘month of despair, with a skewered heart in the centre.’ It’s easy to feel that we’re all being pushed to the edges by the dark and the cold, the keeping on, but thankfully hope lies on the other side of despair, and, by way of vaccines, advancing treatments for Coronavirus, and the lengthening days, we can begin to feel it.
We have been spared the relentless rain of last February. Instead we’ve had blasts of real cold; frozen puddles, the occasional sparkling frost, smatterings of snow. And sleet that falls invisibly, the sound of slushed ice hitting the courtyard as I stand at the back door to push the dog out into the morning.
In the garden there are signs of life. Daffodils and primroses are striking the first punctuation marks of colour in the February gloom; yellows, pinks and vermilions. There are snowdrops and, in the scrubby and rubbly ground of the orchard, the occasional acid burst of celandine. Out on the banks on the path up to Forches wood there’s a mass of snowdrops. They feel celebratory, “Look!” the earth is saying, “life is stirring!”.
A mild spell settles in at the start of the month and, as if a flag has been dropped at the start of a race, the birds respond. They sing in the 6am dark, making us feel there is something to get up for after all those mornings of pulling back the curtains to the dark. One evening I find myself in the field behind the house at 5pm, not the usual 4pm rush out into the still just-light, to walk the dog. The light, the pink and yellow sky, the emergence of the sun, has drawn a congregation of dog walkers together. Our dogs chase each other round with abandon as we stand the regulation two metres apart, revelling in being an illegal community for a few moments. Elvis, a tiny, sleek, grey Italian greyhound, holds court in his pyjamas, keeping the over-excited dogs in check, even the big, beautiful, Cooper who has fallen for his charms.
Something has shifted and we say this to each other – how the light has begun to change, the days to draw out. The hedges flutter with blackbirds and sparrows, chasing and swooping. I meet Colin the birdwatcher in the lane and tell him how I’d just stood under the oak in the field to listen to the thrushes, singing their hearts out – how, the night before, Jojo and I had stopped to listen to them in the darkening yews.
“Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge/Leans to the field and scatters on the clover/Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—/That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over/Lest you should think/he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!” Colin recites, in his Lancastrian burr, from Robert Browning’s Home-thoughts from abroad. “Rapture,” I say, “but that’s exactly how it sounds!” He tells me that he learnt the poem at school and I marvel at his memory. “Natural history was one of the subjects that held my attention,” he tells me with a grin.
I tell him that yesterday I’d learned that Imbolc (also called (Saint) Brigid’s Day), a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring, translates as ‘in the belly’ and coincides with the start of lambing season. I tell him that I shan’t remember this fact again within a few days, so I’m telling as many people as I can while I remember, and we laugh.
Glen is making progress with his pond, chivvied by the knowledge that the frogs and toads have already started their migration from below stones, logs and leaf litter, in search of water to spawn. For two weekends he digs and hauls huge slabs of sandstone into place before the rain, frost and ice put a stop to his cementing. It’s a big pond – 10 feet by 6 feet and almost deep enough to swim in. It half fills with water before he has finished and the water turns to thick ice. I read that some non-tidal parts of the Thames have frozen for the first time since 1967, and of the frost fairs, described as ‘a cross between a Christmas market, circus and boisterous party’, that were held regularly on the ice-thickened surface of the Thames during Britain’s ‘little ice-age.’
A friend sends me an article by Gaby Hinsliff on walking and friendship. Entitled ‘Walking therapy: how lockdown intensified friendship’ it explores how many of us are finding a lifeline in walking and talking during the current restrictions. Gaby says, ‘The hectic group Zooms and Houseparty calls of the first lockdown, which tried to recapture the giddiness of a proper night out only to end up making everyone miss it more, have largely dwindled away… But with luck, in their place comes a more intimate, stripped-back form of friendship.’ During the spring and summer I had the garden to anchor me, but during the winter I’ve been gifted, extraordinarily for a lockdown, a new friendship. Although we can’t do the usual things that friends might – we can’t visit each others’ houses or even exchange a consoling hug we have walked and talked. Jojo and I have met up to walk, for miles, in sunshine, rain and wind, getting to know each other, sharing stories of the before-times and making plans for the future when restrictions ease. After another day of staring at a screen in the box room, to slip out into Sandford’s lanes, climb a hill, slip down muddy tracks and through fields of sheep, to cross the river, noticing life bursting back out of the gloom with a friend by my side, has been a blessing.
In the hedgerow there is a green creep. Cleavers have been growing steadily for a month, growing thicker, bushier, more determined. Feathery herb robert is spreading amongst the emerald moss, the tangle of ivy, the curl of hartstongue and lady ferns. In the lanes the hawthorn is bursting out in pea-green patches, the cuckoo pint showing off with its leopard print dashes. On the stone walls pennywort is growing scalloped and sage green, amongst the moss and ferns. Little violet surprises of periwinkles scramble up the banks amongst the wild daffodils bringing to mind a line from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, ‘Spring has returned. The Earth is a child that knows poems.’
We have hope.