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Full Online Book HomeEssaysMixed Days Of May And December
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Mixed Days Of May And December Post by :chris26 Category :Essays Author :Richard Jefferies Date :April 2011 Read :2675

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Mixed Days Of May And December

In a sheltered spot the cuckoo was first heard on April 29, but only for one day; then, as the wind took up its accustomed northerly drift again, he was silent. The first chimney swallows (four) appeared on April 25, and were quickly followed by a number. They might be said to be about three weeks behind time, and the cuckoo a fortnight. The chiffchaff uttered his clear yet rather sad notes on April 26. The same morning at five o'clock there had been a slight snow shower, but it was a sunny day. On May 1 a stitchwort was in flower, a plant that marks the period distinctly. A swift appeared on May 2; I should not consider this late. A whitethroat was catching insects in the garden on May 6. The cuckoo sang again on May 8; the same day a Red Admiral butterfly was seen, and the turtle-dove heard cooing. Next day, the 9th, the cave swallow appeared, and also the bank martin. With the cooing of the turtledove the spring migrants are generally complete; a warm summer bird, he is usually the last, and if the others had not been seen they are probably in the country somewhere. The chimney swallows had been absent five months all but five days (last seen November 30), so that reckoning the first and the last, they may be said to stay in England seven months--much longer than one would think without taking the dates. Up till April 20 the hedges seemed as bare as they were in January, a most dreary spectacle of barren branches, and the great elms gaunt against the sky. After that the hedges gradually filled with leaf, and were fully coloured when the turtle-dove began to sing, but still the elms were only just budding, and but faintly tinted with green.

Chaucer was right in singing of the 'floures' of May notwithstanding the northern winds and early frosts and December-like character of our Mays. That the cycle of weather was warmer in his time is probably true, but still even now, under all the drawbacks of a late and wintry season, his description is perfectly accurate. If any one had gone round the fields on old May-day, the 13th, _his_ May-day, they might have found the deep blue bird's-eye veronica, anemones, star-like stitchworts, cowslips, buttercups, lesser celandine, daisies, white blackthorn, and gorse in bloom--in short, a list enough to make a page bright with colour, though the wind might be bitter. In the coldest and most exposed place I ever lived in, and with a spring as cold as this, the May garlands included orchids, and the meadows were perfectly golden with marsh-marigolds. For some reason or other the flowers seem to come as near as they can to their time, let the weather be as hard as it may. They are more regular than the migrant birds, and much more so than the trees. The elm, oak, and ash appear to wait a great deal on the sun and the atmosphere, and their boughs give much better indications of what the weather has really been than birds and flowers. The migrant birds try their hardest to keep time, and some of them arrive a week or more before they are noticed. Elm, oak, and ash are the surest indicators; the horse-chestnut is very apt to put forth its broad succulent leaves too soon; the sycamore, too, is an early tree in spite of everything. It has been said that of late years we have not had any settled, soft, warm weather till after midsummer. There has been a steady continual cold draught from the northward till the sun reached the solstice, so that the summers, in fact, have not commenced till the end of June. There is a good deal of general truth in this observation; certainly we seem to have lost our springs. I do not think I have heard it thunder this year up to the time of writing. The absence of electrical disturbance shows a peculiar state of atmosphere unfavourable to growth, so that the corn will not hide a partridge, and in some places hardly a sparrow. Where did the painters get their green leaves from this year in time for the galleries? Not from the trees, for they had none.

A flock of rooks was waddling about in a thinly grown field of corn which scarcely hid their feet, and a number of swallows, flying very low, scarcely higher than the rooks' breasts, wound in and out among them. The day was cloudy and cold, and probably the insects had settled on the ground. The rooks' feet stirred them up, and as they rose they were taken by the swallows. All over the field there were no other swallows, nor in the adjacent fields, only in that one spot where the rooks were feeding. On another occasion swallows flying low over a closely cropped grass field alighted on the sward to try and catch their prey. There seems a scarcity of some kinds of insect life, due doubtless to the wind. Out of a dozen butterfly chrysalids collected, six were worthless; they were stiff, and when opened were stuffed full of small white larvae, which had eaten away the coming butterfly in its shell. They were the offspring of a parasite insect, which thus provided for the sustenance of its young by eating up other young, after the cruel way of nature. Why does one robin carefully choose a thatched cave for its nest, out of reach except by a ladder, and safe from all beasts of prey, and another place its nest on a low grassy bank scarcely hidden by a plant of wild parsley, and easily taken by the smallest boy? At first it looks like a great difference in intelligence, but probably each bird acted as well as could be under the circumstances. Each robin has to fight for his locality, and he has to make the best of his territory; if he trespassed on another bird's premises he would be driven away. You must build your house where you happen to possess a plot of land. It is curious to see the male bird feeding the female, not only while on the nest, but when she comes away from it; the female perches on a branch and utters a little call, and the male brings her food. He was feeding her the other evening on the bare boughs of a fig tree some distance from the nest. The warmth of the sun, although we could not feel it, must have penetrated into the earth some time since, for a slowworm came forth on a mound for the first time on April 16. He coiled up on the eastern side every morning for some hours, but was never seen in the afternoon. His short, thick body and unfinished tail, more like a punch or the neck of a stumpy bottle, was turned in a loop, the head nearly touching the tail, like a pair of sugar-tongs. Coming out from the stitchwort and grasses, the spiders often ran over his shining dark brown surface, something the colour of glazed earthenware. A snake or an adder would have begun to move away the moment any one stopped to look at it; but the slowworm takes no notice, and hence it is often said to be blind. He seems to dislike any sharp noise, and is really fully aware of your presence. Close by the mound, which stands in a corner of the garden, there is a great bunch of blue comfrey, to which the bees and humble-bees come in such numbers as to seem to justify the idea that these insects prefer blue. Or perhaps the blue flowers secrete sweeter honey. Every kind of wild bee as yet flying visits this plant, tiny bees barely a quarter of an inch long, others as big as two filberts, some a deep amber, some striped like wasps. A little of Chaucer's May has come; now and then a short hour or two of sunshine between the finger and thumb of the north wind. Most pleasant it is to see the eave swallow dive down from the roof and rush over the scarcely green garden--a household sign of summer. In the lane if you gather them the young leaves of the sycamore have a fragrant scent like a flower, and low down ferns are unrolling. On the low wall sits a yellow-hammer, just brightly touched afresh with colour. Happy greenfinches go by, and it is curious to note how the instant they enter the hedge they are lost now under the leaves; so few days ago they would have been unconcealed. So near is it to summer that the first thrush begins to sing at three o'clock in the morning.


(The end)
Richard Jefferies's essay: Mixed Days Of May And December

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