Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Robert Lynd > Text of Enter The Spring

An essay by Robert Lynd

Enter The Spring

Title:     Enter The Spring
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

One would imagine from the way in which some people are talking that this is an early spring. I do not think it is. The daffodils certainly came before the swallows dared, but they came reluctantly and in less generous profusion than usual--at least, in one county. As for the swallow, it may have arrived by Saturday, but it has not arrived on the day on which I am writing. "About the middle of March," says Mr Coward, "the first swallows arrive," but I have met no one who has seen one even in the first week in April. The sky seems empty without them. This is, no doubt, an illusion. There are plenty of rooks and pigeons, and there are always starlings desperately hustling from the chimney-pot across to the plum-tree and back again. But the starling is most interesting, not when he is in the air, but when he is at rest--making queer noises in his effulgent, tight-fitting clothes, sometimes like a baby in a cradle, sometimes like a girl trying to whistle, always experimenting with sound rather than singing. One looks forward to the swallows and martins and swifts because they really do live the life of the air. The sky is their domain, and no roof or tree or even telegraph wire. Till they arrive the air is an all but stagnant pool. They transform it into a scene of whirlpools. They do for the air what the hum of insects does for the garden. They banish the stillness of winter and lead the year in the movements of a remembered dance. Spring, however, awakens gradually, and does not plunge precipitately into an orgy. First, the home birds sing, or rather redouble their singing, for the wren and the robin hardly ever left off. This, I think, must be an exceptional year for the chorus of wrens. Last year the lane that leads to the station was at this time a lane of chaffinches: this year it is a lane of wrens. Last year the garden was a garden of thrushes: this year it is a garden of wrens. That is possibly an exaggeration, but this little Tetrazzini among the birds has never seemed to me to trill so dominantly and over so wide a rule. As for the thrushes, I do not know what has happened to them. I heard plenty of them on the outskirts of London in February, but here, fifty miles from London, it is as though they were an exterminated race. Whether gardeners or cats or some other epidemic is to blame, the trees are silent of them. Even the blackbird is not too common here this year, but then a country gardener regards a blackbird as a Turk regards an Armenian. I wish thrushes and blackbirds could read, so that one could put up a notice offering them sanctuary even at the expense of one's gooseberries and strawberries. Strange that a strawberry should appear more delightful to anyone than the song of a blackbird! I know, I may say, the feeling of helpless rage that wells up in the human breast at the sight of a blackbird stealing one's strawberries. Thank God, I am not impervious to moral indignation. If shouting "Stop thief!" could save the strawberries, my voice would be for saving them. But I do not believe in capital punishment for petty theft, and, anyhow, if I must lose either a song or a strawberry, I had rather lose the strawberry.

The larks luckily take to the fields and do not trust themselves near either cats or gardeners. They do not always escape even in the fields, and the dead bodies of some of them are served in a pudding in a Fleet Street restaurant. But, on the whole, considering what a dangerous neighbour man is, they escape fairly lightly. There is a sort of "live and let live" truce between them and the human race. The chaffinches, too--the greatest bird multitude there is, perhaps, after the house-sparrows--are free enough to sing. They have been, during the past week, sailing out on short voyages from the tops of trees, like flycatchers, dancing in the air after their victims and then returning to the spray. The green-finch--that beautiful-winged Mrs Gummidge among birds--is also abundant, and slips down nervously every now and then among the groundsel in the unweeded garden. I confess the greenfinch has all my sympathy, but it rather bores me. What the deuce is it worrying about? There is no poetry in its lamentation--only a sort of habitual formula of a poor, lorn woman. If birds could read, I think I should add to the notices I put up a little board containing the words:

"No bottles.
No hawkers,
No greenfinches."

I should feel really sorry if they took any notice of my notice, but it might convey a hint to them that it would be good policy on their part to cheer up for at least five minutes in the day and that, in any case, there is no need to say the same thing over and over again. Every bird, it is true, says the same thing over and over again--at any rate, more or less the same thing. Birds such as the robin and the thrush vary their song as the chaffinch and the willow-wren do not. But even the robin and the thrush have a recognisable pattern. Fortunately, they are not always, like the greenfinch, thinking of the old 'un and thinking out loud.

The goldfinches have begun to fly about the garden again with their little sequins of song, as someone has delightfully described their music. They have their eyes, I hope, on the pear-tree--now as white as an Alp--where they built and brought up a large family last year. The cornflowers in the flower border are already in bud, and I am told that this is the temptation to which goldfinches most easily yield. I hope so, at any rate. I should have a garden blue with cornflowers, if I were sure that this would entice the seven colours of the goldfinch to make their home in it. Last Saturday, two lesser spotted woodpeckers invaded the garden. One always imagines a woodpecker as a bird of more substantial size, and it is surprising to see this little creature, patterned on the back like something made in the Omega workshop, no bigger than a sparrow, as it hastily visits apple and fig tree and even wygelia. As it climbed the wygelia, indeed, a sparrow stooped down from an upper branch to study it, and then advanced in the direction of the woodpecker. The woodpecker lay back from the trunk of the tree--lying on its back in the air, as it were, and fluttering its wings while holding on with its claws--and seemed to invite the sparrow to come on. I don't think the sparrow had ever seen a woodpecker before. Its curiosity rather than its wrath was aroused by the strange spectacle. It did not want to hurt the foreigner, but only to look at him. After having looked its fill, it moved off to a safer tree. Then the woodpecker, whose heart had no doubt been in its boots for the past five minutes, also loosed its hold on the bark and made off over the gate for a less exciting garden.

Outside the garden the spring began on Good Friday. It came in with the chiffchaff. For three years in succession I have heard the first chiffchaff in exactly the same place--a clump of nut-trees on the top of a high bank. At this time of year, too, before the leaves are out, it is easy to see it. And there are few more charming birds to watch. With its little beak as slender as a grass-seed, and its body moving among the branches like a tiny shadow rather than flesh and bones, it pauses again and again in the midst of its eating to take an upward glance and utter its mite of music--as monotonous as a Thibetan's praying wheel. Still lovelier is the willow-wren that follows it. It is as though the chiffchaff were the first sketch of a willow-wren. The willow-wren is the perfected work of art, with little shades of green added and a voice that, small though its range is, is perhaps the most exquisite that will fill the air till the nightingale arrives. When I went out on Sunday morning, I prophesied that I would hear the first willow-wren, and, though I heard only one in a hill-side copse where the cowslips are just getting their bells ready, the prophecy came true. Not that I am much of a prophet. I don't know how often I have prophesied the arrival of the swallow. And, indeed, it is the surprises in nature, rather than the things that one foresees, that are the pleasantest--especially if one is easily surprised, as I am. Whoever ceases to be surprised, for instance, by the sight of a goldcrested wren? I heard its tiny pinpoint of voice last Sunday afternoon when I was walking past a plantation where the bullace was in flower, and, on looking into the trees, saw the little thimble-sized creature making free with invisible insects--his beak is hardly big enough to eat a visible one--and performing acrobatics like a tit. One of the charms of the goldcrest is that he does not look on a human being as a wild beast. The blackbird regards a man as a policeman; the greenfinch bolts for it if you so much as look at him, but the goldcrest feels as secure in your presence as if you were behind bars in a cage in the Zoological Gardens. One could probably make him jump if one went up to him and shouted suddenly into his ear, or even by making a violent gesture. But his first instinct is not to run. That, for a bird, is a considerable compliment. There can be nothing more distressing to a man of strictly honourable intentions than to have to creep about hedges furtively like a criminal in order to get a good look at a bird. Why he should want to look at birds at all it is difficult to explain. I suppose it is a sort of disease, like going to the "movies" or doing exercises. All I know is that, if you get it, you get it very badly. You would stop Shakespeare himself, if he were reciting a new sonnet to you, and bid him be quiet and look half-way up the elm where the nuthatch was beating away--up and down, like a blacksmith--at a nut or something in a knob of the tree. St Paul might be reading out to you the first draft of his Epistle to the Romans; you would quite unscrupulously interrupt him with a "Hush, man! There's a tree-creeper somewhere about. Listen, there he is! If you keep quiet, perhaps we'll be able to see him." I assure you, it is as bad as that. As for a man who takes out a noisy dog, or who whacks at loose stones with his stick on the road, you would regard him as a misbehaved and riotous person and would not call him your friend. Everything has to be subordinated to the hope of catching sight of a hypothetical bird--which you have probably seen dozens of times already. Truly, there is no accounting for human vices. There is, however, at least this to be said in favour of bird-watching, that it is the pleasantest of the vices, that it is cheaper than golf, and does not harden the arteries like tea-drinking. And after all, if one is going to get excited at all, one may as well get excited about the colours and songs of birds as about most things.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Enter The Spring