Life

Stephen Colton's Take On Nature: May is when all things seem possible

Back in business – a swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the wing
Stephen Colton

THE recent rush of warm Easter sun and south-easterly breezes helped return our swallows safely, after their long and perilous journey from South Africa.

Also on the wing, the orange-tip butterfly is fluttering again in search of lday's smock, the delicate pink flower on whose stem the insect will lay its orange egg.

St Mark's fly appeared with perfect timing around the saint's feast day of April 25. Broken and discarded eggshells tell us the first chicks of the season have already hatched, and as the silver birch dangles its catkins, the mighty beech is beginning to dress itself with tender new leaves.

All of these events coincide with May 1 when the ancient Celtic festival of Bealtaine, meaning ‘Bright fire of Bel' from Belenus, the Celtic sun god, was joyfully celebrated by our ancestors to greet the arrival of summer. In the Celtic calendar, it fell half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and was marked with the lighting of bonfires and the movement of animals from indoor farm buildings to summer pastures.

This summer season started with the lighting of two large bonfires on May eve by the presiding druid, to mark it as a time of purification and transition, heralding in the new season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year. Tribal cattle herds were ritually driven between the fires, to purify and protect them in the coming year.

Celebrations also included people dancing around the Maypole, often made from the wood of hawthorn, classified in early Irish law as the ‘commoner of the wood' and leaping over fires, as well as ‘going a maying' and romancing through the forests.

Other rituals involved decorating the outside of houses with hawthorn branches and placing the bright yellow flowers of marsh marigold or primrose at doorsteps and windowsills to protect people from harmful evil spirits.

Clumps of these plants were also hung around the outhouses of farm buildings to protect livestock. Although many of the original Beltaine practices have died out there are still some customs maintained in rural areas, especially the gathering of flowers on May eve for scattering on door entrances.

So maybe now, at this time of new life and renewal, whether living in the city, town or rural parts, we could use our senses more to stay close to nature like our ancient forebears did and be alive to all its rhythms and possibilities. As the great American naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote, "All things seem possible in May".

There is much to absorb all around, from the birds which fill the air with movement, their silhouettes and dawn and evening song, to the haze of bluebells and wood anemones which carpet the dappled shade of our woodland floors.

May is the month of which English nature poet John Clare wrote, "The sunshine bathes in clouds of many hues/And morning's feet are gemmed with early dews".

Between ground and sky, our trees and hedges are unfurling soft new leaves on which many new insects will feed and shelter. Bumblebees, those champion pollinators, are busily doing their work in gardens and wherever bright flowers appear. Birds are diving into hedges, bringing food for incubating partners or hungry young.

So many other animals, like fox, badger, newt and hare, are also in the throes of breeding and rearing young. There is so much to be seen by the inquisitive eye.

In Ode to May, poet Peter Burn writes:

"Queen of months, supremely fair,?Cloth'd with garments rich and rare,?None in beauty can compare?With thee, sweet May."

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