Martin Maudsley reflects on the elasticity of springtime in the early weeks of lockdown, in this piece written in the middle of April 2020.
Recently I’ve lost all sense of time. At least, time in the conventional meaning of the word. Until recently, working as a freelance storyteller in schools and community projects and being a parent of primary-aged children, my time was planned, prepared and paid for. But now, like many, my diary has been divested of all dates and schedules for the (un)foreseeable future. The once familiar rhythms and routines of school and work, home and holiday have all blurred into one; or rather none. It reminds of something storyteller Hugh Lupton once said about there being two types of time: time that travels forward in a straight line and time that travels round in circles. By losing track of the straight arrow of daily life I’m finding a more acute sense of circular time: circadian and seasonal rhythms that regulate the more-than-human world around me.
This morning whilst writing my journal, which has become a welcome refuge in a time of sudden storytelling silence, I realised I had no concept of how long it had been since lock-down – 10 days, 2 weeks, longer? I can no longer identify the exact date or day of the week, nor recall with any clarity the last day that I actually worked. Even thinking of such things seems suddenly alien. Yet in a short space of time my being and behaviour have adjusted, naturally, to the movements of the sun and the moon. I wake each morning, invariably, at daybreak with the curtains twitching and a dawn chorus of birdsong outside in full flow. I open our bedroom window at night in anticipation of the aural morning glory, and wonder why I didn’t do so before? As a consequence of becoming an early riser I go to bed earlier too but before then I crave being outdoors at dusk – to sense the soft blanket of darkness closing around me. Like a seedling becoming gradually frost-hardened I need to feel each degree of ‘dimmity’ – the slow seeping of light. If I’m forced to be indoors I don’t switch on the lights until the last moment; revelling in the strangeness of my own house in the gloaming. We’re still lighting a fire in the woodburner in these times of warm days but chilly nights and I love its flickering light in the semi-darkness.
After supper, with the kids reading in their beds upstairs, I’m often compelled to step outside to take in the night air. If I haven’t done so already I’ll go for a walk, a circular peripheral route, around the edges of the houses, beating the bounds of the village on my own. I relish the stillness and the quiet (even more pronounced now) that attune the eyes and ears to the small secrets of the natural world at night: a fox tail disappearing into the shadows, a ruffling of someone’s feathers in the ash trees, the distant call and response of tawny owls. I’ll saunter slowly, pretending it’s aimless. Yet there’s usually a pressing purpose behind my footsteps: to meet the other ruler of diurnal rhythms – the moon. A few nights ago it was a full moon and the thought of seeing it had been pulling at me all day. From our house I had to walk around two dark lanes of houses before I finally found its luminous form, rising huge and heavy behind a tree line. It was such a jolt of joy to see it in splendid isolation against the deep-blue, still-starless sky – just me and the moon. In Anglo-Saxon namings, which reflect the seasonal rhythms of the land, this was ‘egg moon’ – the time when wild birds begin to lay their eggs.
In the garden a sense of time measured as growth is palpable on a daily, almost hourly, basis. The onions, lost in their beds, are starting to reveal their locations with green shoots whilst overwintering brassicas provide a growing profusion of purple sprouting. Broad bean and beetroot seedlings that were put down before lockdown are now ready to be planted outdoors. Inside the greenhouse there are a dozen trays with seeds at different stages of germination. I check them obsessively, several times a day, giving the bigger ones a tickle to encourage strong growth, and I can tell precisely which individuals have emerged since I last looked. It’s a time-lapse wave of growth that nowadays I have chance to capture in slow-motion. My time is lovingly lost in the garden; a morning or afternoon is gone in the blink of an eye without any conscious perception of its passing. Completely absorbed by the completion of each task, one leading to another, I gain a sense of intrinsic satisfaction that I rarely find elsewhere. I’ve been reflecting that I don’t often get such opportunity to see the fruits of my labour: the story-seeds I’ve scattered over the years have taken root and borne fruit (or not), without me being around to witness them.
Time, more than money which has limited value these days, has become common currency within our family. Spending time with each other, to some extent enforced, has also become an act of intentional generosity. The other day whilst on a constitutional family walk I impulsively offered an hour of my dedicated time, freely and for whatever purpose, to the first person that saw our first swallow of the year. The next hour was consumed with four pairs of eyes scraping the sky, false alarms and playful pranks. Until, in the same moment I heard its chattering call, my 10 year old son spotted one soaring past and trilled in triumph. An hour later, an hour in the garden was happily spent playing cricket together. For a few days my 8 year old daughter has persistently requested to sleep outside in the garden, under the stars. It’s been warm weather for a while now but it’s still April-time, in Britain – not to be fooled with. Nevertheless the next night, on a make-shift mattress with hot water bottles in sleeping bags covered by more blankets, we lie side-by-side in the dark. We talk in whispers, as if we might disturb the night and spoil the magic. A story, a shooting star, then I’m listening to her breathing slowing into deep sleep-time. I stir well before first light and am surprised to hear an early bird, a robin, already rehearsing its song. By dawn we’re both wide awake and smiling, blanketed by birdsong in the chill of the air. Time well spent.
Away from the garden, in the fields and woods around the hill that constitutes our realm of recreational exercise (and the setting of a letter to Vodafone), the wildflowers are already flowing in spring tides of yellow and white. In a quirk of timing this time-off has arrived during the most prolonged and gradual of the seasons: spring. Where we live in Dorset it stretches from January’s first stirrings through to the exuberant final flourish of exuberance in May. These passing, anonymous days unveil a series of sights and sounds that weave together into a symphony of spring. The early snowdrops, in naked white, have given way to the yellows of starry celandines, sunny dandelions and perfect egg-moon primroses. As I write the cowslips have just arrived to graze amongst the shaded grasses at the field edges.
The April-flowering cowslips remind me of a haunting fenland folktale I’ve been working on called The Green Mist. It tells of a young woman who fell ill one winter and became so white and weak it seemed unlikely she would last a day longer. Yet she hoped that the fair folk might bless her with the green mist that unfolds the flowers and lengthens the leaves of spring. So that morning she whispered through her window in desperate hope: “If only I could be as bright and alive as the cowslips that grow by the door, I wouldn’t mind if I faded, like them, in summer.” The capricious fairies listened and took her at her word. The green mist came. She revived the next day and was full of vigour and vitality through April, May and just into June but then as the cowslips faded in summer so she too withered once more; her season at an end.
I’m currently trying to write a book on seasonal folktales and folklore. With time on my hands it should be a good time, you’d think, to get on with it… except I’m missing a sense of urgency. Although inspiration is all around I’m so caught up in sensing the season it’s hard to find motivation to be particularly industrious. But it’s a good time for listening, letting stories settle in their own time rather than rushing to write them down. I’ve surprised myself how averse I’ve felt to any form of digital storytelling, or sharing stories online, although many others are doing so eloquently and generously. Losing my voice and vocation is teaching me to be still and quiet; to look at and listen to the world where stories are formed. My friend and fellow storyteller, Peter Stevenson, remarked recently how the time of year in folktales is often denoted by wild plants and animals, each with their seasonal specificity. Whilst the folk that first told these tales undoubtedly had intimate experience with the rhythms of the natural world, we still have that capacity for seasonal sensitivity that is both expressed and enhanced through stories.
As I think on these things a brimstone butterfly, fractured fragment of golden sunshine, floats in and out of the garden, in a flutter. By the gate a little holly blue, a scrap of cobalt sky, flits fussily around the overgrown ivy. All morning speckled woods have flirted with the garden hedge, but kept their social distance. Then I suddenly feel the zing of spring as an orange tip arrives and alights on purple flower: an open-hearted honesty. Butterflies are such soulful sights – the ancient Greeks named them pyche, which also means soul. I recall a strange and charming Japanese folktale I’ve sometimes told about two friends who were walking together admiring the cherry blossom of spring: sakusura season. After lunch one of the friends falls asleep, beneath a bower of flowers, and dreams that he becomes a butterfly. On waking his friend tells him that whilst sleeping a little blue butterfly flew out of his mouth and fluttered around the trees. Man dreaming butterfly, or the other way round?
Springtime brings other welcome wings: migrant birds returning with the annual regularity that regulates our well-being. From the beginning of March my ears are attuned to hear the two-tone tune of the chiffchaff – the archangel of spring’s heralds. The skylarks, in fine voice this year near our house, elaborate the soundtrack of spring with a mellifluous melody that seems so happy it might burst their own hearts. A week ago my own heart was bursting to see that first, solitary swallow of the year, sweeping from the sea on warm, southerly wind. They say a single swallow does not a summer make, yet it certainly made my day, made me feel more at home somehow. Reading a book at home, Welsh Folktales by Peter Stevenson, I find a flighty fable accredited to Iolo Morganwg… One springing morning a skylark rose up on her ladder of song above a little orchard where an old pig was tied to a tree. The boar looked up with small, squinting eyes to grunt loudly at the frivolous bird: “Why do you fly so high and sing so long when no-one down here give a straw for your song?” The lark replied: “I sing because it’s spring and the sun is shining, and because I’m not tethered to a tree.”
I’m lost in time. Like all of us, I don’t know when this time will end. But I navigate naturally through each day, I look at the moon rather than the month and stop to sense each subtle shift in the season. And I’m caught by the moment: between swallows and swifts, after primroses and just before bluebells. Like a lark I’m happy it’s springtime and that, for now, I’m not tethered to anything as straight as time.
Martin Maudsley, 14th April 2020
Martin Maudsley is a freelance professional storyteller based in Bridport, Dorset. He is storyteller-in-residence for pioneering environmental arts charity Common Ground and has particular passion for traditional stories that create connections with nature, the seasons and a sense of place. He works regularly with Dorset AONB including a landscape myths and legends project for schools and (when time allows) is collaborating with them and Common Ground on a county-wide oral history project to curate stories that celebrate local landscapes, wildlife and people. He is currently writing a book on celebrating the seasons in Britain and likes nothing better than toasting the apple trees with glass of cider in the place where it’s made.
Photographs by the author.