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At the Turn of the Year, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp)

"The same drama of life and death is enacted in midwinter as in midspring"


At the Turn of the Year, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp)

William Sharp (1855-1905)

Born in Paisley in the Central Lowlands of Scotland, William Sharp was a prolific writer of essays, novels, poems, plays, and biographies. He is chiefly remembered for the works he published during the last 12 years of his life under the female pseudonym of Fiona Macleod.

Among those works was a collection of nature writings, Where the Forest Murmurs (1906), from which this essay has been drawn.

At the Turn of the Year

by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp)

When one hears of "the dead months," of "dead December" and "bleak January," the best corrective is to be found in the coppice or by the stream-side, by the field-thicket, in the glens, and even on the wide moors if the snow is not everywhere fallen, a coverlet so dense and wide that even the juniper has not a green spike to show, or the dauntless bunting a clean whin-branch to call from on the broomieknowe. Even the common sayings reveal a knowledge hidden from those to whom winter is "a dead season" . . . and it is a continual surprise to find how many people believe that from the fall of the leaf or the first sleet and snow, till the thrush doubles and trebles his note in the February wet-shine, that bird and insect and all green life have gone, that all Nature is dead or asleep. Thus, for example, "as keen in the hearing as a winter-plover" must have been uttered, when first said, by a watcher of the multiform birdlife of our winter-fields and fallow lands, one who knew that the same drama of life and death is enacted in midwinter as in midspring or midsummer, a drama only less crowded, less complex and less obvious, but not less continual, not less vital for the actors.

Who that has watched the pee-wits seeking worms on ploughed lands at midwinter, and seen them poise their delicate heads and listen for the phantom rustle of a worm in this clod or under yonder fallow, while the greedy but incapable seamews, inland come from frost bound coasts or on the front of prolonged gales, hear nothing of "the red people" and trust only to bulk and fierce beak to snatch the prey from hungry plover-bills . . . who that has seen this can fail to recognise the aptness of the saying, "as keen in the hearing as a winter-plover"? Who that has watched the ebb and flow of lark-life, resident and immigrant; the troubled winter-days of the field-travellers (as the familiar word 'fieldfare" means) and the wandering thrushes; the vagrant rooks, the barn-haunting hoodie; the yellow-hammer flocks and the tribes of the finch; the ample riverside life, where heron and snipe, mallard and moor-hen, wren and kingfisher, and even plover and the everywhere adaptable starling are to be found with ease by quick eyes and careful ears: who that has seen the sudden apparition of the bat, or the columnar dance of the ephemeridae, or the flight of the winter-moth along the dishevelled hedgerows: or who that, besides the mistletoe and the ivy, the holly and the fir, the box and the late-flowering clematis, and many other of the green and flowering clans of the forest and the garden, has noted the midwinter-blooming shepherd's purse, healing groundsel, bright chickweed, and red deadnettle, can think of nature as lifeless at this season?

When amid the rains and storms of December an old gardener, instead of saying that spring was on the move, remarked to me that "'Twill be starling days soon," he gave voice to a truth of observation as impressive as it is beautiful. For often December has not lapsed before the mysterious breeding-change of the Vita Nuova, the New Life that spreads like a flowing wave so early in the coming year will begin to be obvious on the dun-hued lapwing, on the inland-wandering gull, and even on one or the other of the small "clan of the bushes" more dear and familiar to us. On none, however, is the change so marked as on the blithe starling, surely the bird of cheerfulness, for he will sing (does he ever cease that ever-varying call or flute or whistle of his?) when the lark cannot rise in the polar air, when the missel-thrush will not throw a challenge on the wet wind, and long before the most jubilant great-tit in the forest will ring his early tinkling bell under leafless boughs. For, even at Christmastide, though rarely perhaps quite so early, the dark bill will suddenly yellow, and a green and purple sheen will come over the russet plumage. Already Nature has looked northward again. And, when she looks, there is at once a first movement of the infinite sweet trouble of the New Life once more. The Creative Spirit is come again from the sunways of the South. "'Twill be starling days soon"--what is that but a homely way of saying that the old year has not lapsed before the new year has already stirred with the divine throes of rebirth. "The King is dead: Long live the King!" is the human analogue. There is no interregnum.

The cuckoo may have fled before the swallow, the landrail before the wild swan, but during the grey ebb of autumn ten thousand wings have rustled in the dawn as the migrants from oversea descend at last on our English and Scottish shores. A myriad host may have fled at the equinox, or lingered till the wet winds of the west and the freezing blasts of the north swept them from November; but on those east winds from Norway and the Baltic, from Jutland and Friesland, on those south winds leaping upward from the marshes of Picardy and the Breton heathlands and from all of the swarm-delivering South behind, on those southwest gales warm with the soft air of the isles of the west, and wet with the foam over lost Ys and sunken Lyonesse, what an incalculable host has come hitherward. Like great fans, the invisible pinions of the Bird-God, that Winged Spirit whom a Finnish legend images in continual suspense at the Crossways of the Four Winds, beat this way and that: so that when already the lament of the wild-geese in storm-baffled flight from the South ulules in our norland dawns, clouds of larks are gathered like dust from the North-Sea lands, and are blown upon our shores, a multitude of thrush turn westward, the rook and the hoodie rise on the Danish wind, and yonder shadow drifting over the woods of Norway is none other than ten thousand fieldfares whose congregation will soon be spilt like rain upon our fields and pastures.

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