Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst

Of resurrection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking

They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.

Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.

Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear

Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Thistles are everywhere in summer and are often seen as a nuisance. As Ted Hughes makes clear, they are armoured, have been around for quite a while, and can be hard to get shot of. They are also beautiful, and very good for butterflies and moths.

Woodpecker is rubber-necked

We have a bird box in the garden which has proved pretty useless at attracting birds, except for one – a great spotted woodpecker which came last Spring and used the box to drum out its combined territory and mating call; we have seen and heard it again, and welcomed it as a sure sign of sap rising and growth returning.  This is Ted Hughes, from his 1981 collection, Under the North Star.

Woodpecker is rubber-necked
But has a nose of steel.
He bangs his head against the wall
And cannot even feel.

When Woodpecker’s jack-hammer head
Starts up its dreadful din
Knocking the dead bough double dead
How do his eyes stay in?

Pity the poor dead oak that cries
In terrors and in pains.
But pity more Woodpecker’s eyes
And bouncing rubber brains.


There’s something about snowdrops.  Whether they’re in gardens, at the side of the road, or carpeting the woods, that flash of white speaks of spring and renewal – and hope rekindled.  And unlike the real thing, which can look wonderful at first but usually then quickly turns to slush or ice, snowdrops bloom brightly and then fade quietly away disappearing completely, bothering nobody.  There’s never any disruption, traffic chaos or missed days at school and work.  No loss to the economy, just nature’s beauty to raise the spirits, and say it’s time to get out more.

Snowdrops are native to Europe, but not to Britain, and were probably introduced around 500 years ago.  There are about 20 species occurring naturally, but well over 350 cultivated varieties.  If they’re not in gardens, they will probably be the common, self-naturalising snowdrop with its neat bobbing head of pure white with that flash of green at the ends of the three inner petals.  It seems likely, though, that all snowdrops seen in the wild are garden escapees, spread by birds scratching the soil, dispersing the bulbs.  They have everyday names as striking as the flower, including Fair Maids of February, and Candlemas Bells, and are common in folklore and legend.

Some great houses and estates specialise in snowdrop displays in February and March.  The Courts, at Holt, is one of these, as well as Lacock Abbey and Great Chalfield Manor.  But maybe it’s just as good to wander through the village where you’ll find them on grass verges and under hedges.  They were late coming this year, or so This is Bath says.  Is this because of climate change, or just the long cold winter?  Time will tell.

Unsurprisingly, the English romantic poets loved snowdrops just because they were such dramatic indicators of change.  Here’s a different perspective from Ted Hughes who reminds us just how much of a problem a long cold winter can be if you’re out there, just trying to make it through, and how tough you have to be, even if you’re a … Snowdrop

Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart. 

Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass, 

Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths.  
She, too, pursues her ends, 

Brutal as the stars of this month, 

Her pale head heavy as metal.

April 2010