“There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” — Gertrude Jekyll
Today we begin the month of February, and take a winter walk with the prose of H.E. Bates. One of my reading goals for 2016 is to acquaint myself with his fiction. But for now, I am still held in thrall by his nature writing, and this book Through the Woods is a favorite. (The quotations are from this book, pictured here, and most taken from the chapter ‘Primroses and Catkins’. For more on HE and the lovely wood engravings of this book read my autumn post here.)
Bates writes of this seasonal transition we are now in, poised between the dark and light of change, as a time of ‘extraordinary stillness and suspense.’
With such words, February is well described.
In the word-lover’s palette of colors, ‘quixotic’ is useful—it has shades of meaning, but ‘capricious and unpredictable’ would be useful for our purposes today. February is supremely quixotic. Unlike the other months, February has that most feminine of wild cards—the mysterious ’29’—that she likes to throw in now and again, just to keep things interesting. But will it be a 29th day of frozen, heartless glamour, or a 29th day of sunny smiles? We just have to wait and see.
If the months were likened to animals, as they often are, I think of February as a cat. Her purring, fetching ways allure us with warm days of emerging pussywillows, crocuses and tempting primroses in the market…”here, kitty, kitty” plays the siren song….followed by a sudden vicious scratching, as it were; a drastic drop in temperatures, a killing blizzard, and heart-breaking wreckage of all the tender greens and lucent pastels the garden has been encouraged to put forth.
But so speaketh the wounded and wary gardener…we feel this bipolar aspect of February most keenly. It is February that can lure even the most sane minded gardener into, well, quixotic, giddy behavior that has led to the wanton ruin of many an innocent plant.
“There is a sultriness as soft as milk over everything.”
I’ve paired the vigorous nature prose of H.E. Bates with some pictures of my recent winter walks in local gardens and wetlands. While HE writes of the climate and fauna of his English countryside, much of what he describes is not that far off from the Pacific Northwest climate of my home. Chiefly lacking in my picture accompaniment, though…are catkins. Oh, these lovely catkins he speaks of!
‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’
I can thank H.E. Bates for giving me a new and exciting pursuit for this mercurial month of February—to go in search of the captivating flowers that hang ‘between heaven and earth‘.
‘And now, after the storm, the sight of the first clearing of the sky from beneath the trees is very fine. Rain-washed, cleared of cloud, it is pale blue, infinitely clear, with a kind of pure morning clarity. The first wintry beauty of trees is enhanced by it. Trees stand out, at last, with their own characters, oak knotty, birch thready, ash spindly and looping. There is suddenly a remarkable grace about them, a laciness, a pattern. Yet together, from afar off, they have the permanence of iron. Frost and rain along changes them, frost to silver, rain to bronze and steel. They give the land a sense of rich solidity even in the deadness of winter; they are living veins of tree-ore running about the cropless fields and the vacant pastures. More than anything they save the land from barrenness.’
In the following, his use of terms such as envy, prodigality, and lavish is revealing; here is a man passionate about trees:
If there is one thing I envy above all others in the mansions and parks of the rich it is the glory of their yews and cypresses, soft green and black and yellow and blue and emerald, impassive and quiet trees, planted with thought and prodigality by someone in another and more lavish age. They stand out with singular life and loveliness against the cloudy sky and the naked deciduous trees and, above all, against the expanses of fox-coloured bracken drenched with rain. And in the still winter air they seem to be stiller than all other trees: dark static columns, funereal but lovely, inseparable and unchangeable parts of the wintry land and the suspended winter silence that seems also as if it can never change or break.
‘On wet rain-dark winter days, when the sheep-pens on the late root-land are still dreary with sludder and the grassland is sodden and lifeless, the birches in the wood down the land come most suddenly and wonderfully to life. The rain, clinging to their delicate twigs and catkins, seems to undergo a transformation. It is as though the buds perform the miracle of turning the rain to wine, for with the red buds and redder catkins shining through tits drops the rain gleams like dim burgundy….’
(I just need to interrupt these lovely nature notes with the side point that a word like ‘sludder‘ is quite distracting to the wordsmith and needs a comment of its own; for more see the Curious Word.)
‘There is a time, just before February, when they hang half-stiff, half-loose, undancing and unbrilliant, no longer green and not yet golden. It is not their loveliest time but it is their most triumphant. They have broken through the winter and the darkness. It is an unpassionate blossoming, not to be compared with the bursting of the wild crab bloom or the rose, but it is pristine, the catkins are one with light, responsive to it and governed by it, the tassels richening and lengthening as the light itself richens and lengthens to fullest spring.’
Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker, from H.E. Bates ‘Through the Woods’
Yes, he has fired within me a desire to go in search of these catkins beauties, these unsung Cinderellas in the wild. If not today, then tomorrow.
If February will let me.