Thursday 23 November 2017

Bring on those gorgeous Greek goddesses!

THE Romans and George Orwell - an unlikely coupling - are in a weather eye in the hardness of days after rain.

More appropriately, green finches, blue tits, a wren or two and at least one confident and beautifully liveried cock blackbird, are fearless seeking food.

The Romans never arrived here as conquerors. They had one look, as it were, and that was enough!

Thousands of years ago this isle was the last outpost of the inhabited world. The Masssalian explorer Pytheas had been told its name was Ierne - yes, we have heard of that one - origins unknown. So the wise sons of Caesar, having heard that "complete savages" led a "miserable existence there because of the cold" promptly re-named it Hibernia, the "Wintry Land." They were happier to remain on the neighbouring island.

Orwell, in a slough of winter despond, once thought of the escape from winter and the eventual arrival of spring as some sort of miracle. There was obviously some tough weather back in 1940, apart from Hitler's muscle-flexing.

Orwell wrote: "After the sort of winter we have had to endure it becomes gradually harder to believe spring is actually going to happen." This was a few years before he moved to Jura in the Hebrides (to grow his spuds), a winter fate akin to that seen by the Romans here. But he did write (January having slid by): "From February I have found myself thinking winter was going to be permanent.

"But Persephone" (bring on those Greek goddesses!) "always rises from the dead." Sound the trumpets. The miracle of March arrives.

March, of many weathers, may be premature now. But January, puff and blow, has stirred some songbirds into liveliness especially on bird-table mornings where they gossip and devour soaked porridge flakes, pick at peanuts and sun flower seeds while thistle seeds called nyjer are devoured by the finches.

Hanging fat balls here and there is essential. Make your own using the little nets that held washing detergent cubes, a tip I once got from an old colleague at INM who claimed flocks of goldfinches came into his garden at Ashbourne. I trust they still do!

All small songbirds feel the cold worse than we do so they share heat by clinging together at night. The most vulnerable are wrens which sometimes seek house attics - 100 birds were once found in an attic in England. Long-tailed tits put heads and bodies in a huddle in thick cover, fluffing up in feather balls. Their winter roosts are typically in dense thorn bushes which protect them from predators as well as the cold. These tits like to move around in small flocks and are seldom attracted to garden tables.

My cock blackbird friend is an apple-a-day fellow - slice in half. Woodpigeons had taken to thieving from him having cleaned the berries from a cotoneaster bush but have moved off. Perhaps the dark controller gave them a jab with that formidable yellow beak.

As for me, I thank readers for messages in recent times, and console myself with Horace (back to the Romans!): "Dum potes, aridum conpone lignum etc" . . . (so gather kindling while you may, tomorrow you shall recreate your soul with wine . . .). Keep the home fires burning, of course, but no wine for the moment while the old arthritis is an unwelcome spring guest.

Sunday Independent

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