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Waiting for the bees and the blossom of the cherry plum

The author Katherine Swift gives us her reflection on spring, a time of the returning sun and fresh life in the garden. 

Illustration by Laura Carlin

Illustration by Laura Carlin

‘‘Look! We have come through.”

Some years you can smell it before you see it, like a trav­eller scenting land after months at sea – a smell of greenness that suddenly catches you unawares. Sometimes it’s the sight of the early-morning sun striking the corner of the window for the first time in months and you realise that the earth is swinging back towards the equinox once more. Sometimes it’s a sound: the birds beginning to sing again in the darkness before a February dawn. Or a feel: the texture of the claggy earth rubbed between finger and thumb, feeling dry and crumbly at last. Every year there is something that makes you think, “Yes! It’s here.”

But this winter has never seemed to end – no tidemark of returning sun, no sudden smell of greenness. Paradoxically, it never even seemed to begin. The grass went on growing; the horticultural fleece lay unused in piles in the shed; tender plants, unprotected, went unscathed. There were roses in bloom at Christmas and Lent lilies in January. Six weeks of gales and floods but never a frost.

The bell-ringers’ annual service was on 1 February, the Saturday before Candlemas. Parts of the garden were still underwater and the wind was so strong that it almost blew the plates out of my hands as I carried them into the church for tea. There was to be an hour and a half of ringing, then the service, then tea – mounds of sandwiches and scones, cakes and quiches, all laid out on tables in the back of the church – then the AGM and another hour or so of ringing. It was already dark when we sat to listen to the sermon. The vicar took for her text the story of Candlemas: how Simeon and Anna, two superannuated temple attendants who have been hanging on to see the birth of the Messiah, recognise him at last in the baby Mary brings.

And that’s when Simeon says the Nunc Dimittis – the lovely canticle that gives Candlemas its name:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word:

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

The words are familiar from compline and evensong and from funerals and memorial services. But we don’t know how old Simeon was. It’s always assumed that he was ancient. Perhaps he was young, the vicar said, one of those fervent young men who hang about and make a nuisance of themselves – a fan, a geek, just someone determined not to go away until he saw the Messiah. The point was that he persevered. Whatever age he was, she said, she felt God would have said to him: “Well done. You made it. You came through.”

Earlier in the day I had gone up the garden to check if the bees needed feeding again. I have been feeding them since before Christmas. Disease and the vagaries of the weather nowadays mean that every year a high proportion of bee colonies fails to survive the winter. One colony in particular was a cause for concern – a late swarm that hadn’t had time to make enough honey to last it through to spring. Cautiously, trying not to let the cold air in, I tilted the roof of the hive just enough to be able to slide another pot of bee candy over the hole in the crown board. I hadn’t seen the bees themselves since long before Christmas.

Waiting to see if the bees will re-emerge in spring is always an anxious time. Whatever I am doing in the garden – pruning roses, cutting out dead wood – I always find myself drifting up to look at the silent hives. This year the unceasing rain and wind had kept me, and them, penned indoors longer than usual. But then one day – a  gap in the rain – it was a little warmer and suddenly there they were, like a wisp of smoke above the hive. Creeping closer, I watched them coming and going on the alighting board. The queen was laying. All was well.

On my way back to the house I saw that the sudden warmth had also brought out the blossom of the cherry plum, a froth of white against the winter-dark hedges. There were red shoots of peonies in the rose border and silvery tufts of growth on the woody stems of the clematis. There was even a solitary snake’s head fritillary in bud in the sodden Lammas meadow.

Nothing to eat in the vegetable garden yet but as I passed the spinney I picked hawthorn buds, Jack-by-the-hedge and wild garlic leaves and made a wild salad to add to the last of the apples in the fruit store – Norfolk Beefing and Lane’s Prince Albert – together with a handful of walnuts picked last September from the trees behind the hives, and added them to the shop-bought celery languishing in the fridge: the taste of spring, that sharp mixture of old and new, hope and regret. It’s here, arrived at last, slipped under the wire when I wasn’t looking.

I fetch from the bookshelf D H Lawrence’s cycle of love poems – the chronicle of his first stormy months with Frieda – and read “Spring Morning”: “We have come through.”

Katherine Swift is the author of “The Morville Hours: the Story of Garden” (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses