Like many others in the village, we have evolved an understanding with the local birds: we look after the garden in part for their benefit, and they spend time in it providing us with pleasure, fulfilment, and the occasional surprise. The garden is home to all-comers, from the diminutive wren to the fluffed-up wood pigeon, to finches, tits, thrushes, starlings and doves, and in cold winters when the apples lie on the frozen ground to the reclusive fieldfare, though they are more likely to swoop onto the old orchard by St George’s Court, where pickings are always much richer. Even sparrows, despite their widespread decline across Europe since the 1970s, drop by.
Blackbirds seem particularly possessive of the garden, enough to squabble over it anyway. However, the only time that we find ourselves in any sort of competition with them is when the Morello cherry blossom has set and its acid fruits are ripening. As they turn from yellow to red the blackbirds linger, and we’re lucky to get any fruit at all they can spend more time picking it than we can. In a good year, we’ll only get one small bowl of its sour fruit. But we don’t grow it for that dubious pleasure – and anyway, you can buy sweet cherries all the year round now if you want to, and don’t mind the miles they’ve clocked up coming round the globe. Rather, it’s the blossom that attracts; for two weeks in May, especially when it first opens and there are no leaves to get in the way, it dazzles the eye, grips the attention, and stirs the imagination – and you realise how welcome it is as a confirmation of Spring.
AE Housman wrote about the blackbird, but much more memorably about the cherry, and he understood the tree’s importance to a short human lifespan, appreciating that every opportunity should be taken to walk amongst the trees – and perhaps not just in May.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.