Winter Settles In

A House for Winter
The sky opens blue windows
between shutters of grey cloud.
Winter peers in.

Brittle sunshine slants
between skeletonised trees,
thin relict leaves at twig tips.

A breath of frost melts
on the cold frame, split curls
of seedpods glued to the glass.

The dark glassy river is choked
with panes of broken ice,
curdled with falls of new snow.

The warm pigeon-feathered hollow
between railway and river, bubbles
like a hearth with soft coos.

A white snow-mist climbs
the black walls of the hill.
Winter settles in.

This is the opening poem in the sequence River Calendar, and apart from the absence of blue skies and sunshine, it’s pretty much the way the territory looks just now. The temperature is climbing, and the last scraps of snow are melting down here beside the river, but there is still snow on the hills. The grass is coming through lush and startlingly green, and I’ve been checking the garden for signs of new life. The bulbs are coming through, but they don’t seem much earlier than usual in spite of the very mild December we had – there are certainly no snowdrops or daffodils out here. The witch hazel is in full flower, nearly three weeks ahead of the date I recorded for last year, and there are catkins on the hazel and birch.janwitch  Otherwise everything seems to have withstood the relentless rain pretty well, as far as I can see, though some of those herbs that don’t like to get their feet wet must be struggling. I carefully moved some of the more vulnerable ones – the lavenders, myrtle, lemon verbena and so on into the greenhouse, and they look fine. Sometimes there are mice and voles in there which give tender shoots a hard time, but this doesn’t seem to have happened so much, perhaps because food has been more accessible outside.

This certainly seems to apply to the birds. They don’t seem nearly so interested in coming to the feeders except in very cold weather, and the wilder birds – the yellowhammers and reed buntings haven’t come at all. There are still berries left on the cotoneasters, even some rose-hips, which must be unusual for January, and I haven’t seen any grey squirrels lately. This might be because of the fox I’ve seen prowling on the river bank in the early morning; it seems to have diminished the rabbit population somewhat too.

The birds are beginning to have other things on their minds. Starlings are getting together in the bushes across the river, chattering and whistling, and maybe thinking about moving north. They always seem to be the first to get itchy feet. There are blackbirds as well as robins singing before dawn, and the first great tits are tuning up their spring songs. Earth is not awake yet, but perhaps sleeping  less deeply.

There will be one big change this year. The warehouse on whose flat roof  the black-backed gulls nest when they come back up-river in May is being demolished. I don’t think their neighbours will miss their noise  and disturbance – and the house-martins certainly won’t miss their nest-robbing – but I will. I like their communal gabble, their careful boundary-watching, the brown blobs of fluff that run around the roof until they grow to flying weight, the witchy screams as the parent birds incite them to take off and go fish for themselves. One of the markers of the coming and going of summer will be gone.frosty herbs

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