A late spring, then, by 21st-century standards. Migrant birds trickled in tentatively before arriving en masse with the first, belated hints of warmth. Insects have remained in suspended animation on what might have been busy days for them in the past few years. By April 16th two young frogs were still hibernating beneath a rock in our front garden. The day before, amidst what can only be called an unfamiliarly on schedule spring, the turn in the weather had tempted me out to the expanse of scrubby heath, grassland and gravel at Greenham Common in West Berkshire.
Alas, the sky had darkened since morning’s freshly laundered sunshine, and clouds were leaning threateningly across the open common. Nonetheless chiffchaffs and willow warblers lent something of a summery air to the soundscape, singing from time to time when the mood took them. From somewhere off stage to the south the pulse of a nightingale’s crescendo was just audible above the breeze. More distant still, a woodlark’s lulling refrain arrived in fragments, jumbled and broken by the wind but remaining unmistakeable. Yet on large swathes of the common, birdsong was absent.
Spring is still acting coy: withholding its full self for some imaginary, perfect day to come.* Is it mere weather patterns which mess with nature’s calendar? Cold temperatures blown in by the wrong winds, the face of the sun hidden by clouds? Or is there something else? Are we waiting for a deeper spring, beneath and beyond the annual cycle, outside of time even, a spring where everything is now and will always be new?
Greenham Common is an inspiring place to go: it has regenerated. ‘Nature’ – or at least more traditional, enlightened human management of place – has reclaimed in part what was a home to the most destructive force yet unleashed by man. A place that was symbolic of the power of empire over the lives of local people, and over animals and plants, and in the face of an actual nuclear detonation, over global climate, now in theory allows all these to live side by side, serving each other’s needs.
But look too closely and the unfinished nature of this transformation is all too apparent. The runways have not, as I had once thought, been miraculously buried under the heath in a mere two decades; in a delicious stroke of irony, they were dug up and used to construct the snail-smashing, Swampy-defying Newbury bypass. The American military is gone, but the ungainly Chinook helicopters of our own forces regularly cast the shadow and thundering noise of war over the common – four times during my two-hour visit. Trucks and cranes clatter, crash and roar in the container yard just over the reserve fence, busy sounds of commerce puncturing the peace.
A more prosaic problem is the dogs, not to mention their owners (who, unlike our canine friends, are actually supposed to be able to read), who ignore area-closed signs designed to protect ground-nesting birds. Following close behind, youths on bikes and breathless joggers speed around the common as though it were a racetrack, drowning out nature’s music with their distinctly unmusical conversation – whether in twos and threes or on their mobiles, they’ve always got something to say – or with those pervasive modern encumbrances, earphones.
Recklessness, greed, violence; ignorance, thoughtlessness, apathy. It’s little wonder spring has had a hard time of it. Until these forces are overcome, will it ever truly break through?
Eventually I could stand no more intrusions into the at least semi-natural soundscape I had come to enjoy. A few minutes after climbing into the car to leave Greenham, I was still pensively fiddling with the contents of my bag when it dawned on me that I could hear faint strains of one more song from outside: a second woodlark had flung himself skyward. I opened the door and looked up.
There he was! Turning in an ever-widening arc over the car park and under the rain clouds, circling the control tower where bombers were once sent on their way. He sang his sweet, sad lament, a shower of descending notes that at last, at last, overpowered everything. Maybe brighter days are ahead after all.
*Saturday was close to perfect, actually. That will teach me to leave a four- or five-day gap between writing and posting!
96 American cruise missiles, equipped with nuclear warheads, were stored at Greenham Common between 1983 and 1991. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in response. At their height the protests involved some 70,000 people.
More woodlarks, recorded this morning just over the border in Hampshire:
The title of this post is taken from a somewhat unusual poem by Gerard Manley-Hopkins, The Woodlark.