The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Month of Blossoms †
At last summer is upon us. Organic nature is nearing her highest-pitched note. Our country walks naturally shorten themselves, as regards distance, for there is so much more to hear and see and understand. All the members of our native flora and fauna are disporting themselves. You would hardly think most of the sweet birds that are singing from every green tree are quite as much African as English--if not more. In May nature holds her Eisteddfod. * It is an avian singing competition--ranging from the melancholy but liquid flow of song from the nightingale to the "cheeky" chirrup of the sparrow. Shut your eyes and open your ears the first sunny morning in mid-May you find yourself in the country. Myriads of bird voices blend in the widespread "Hallelujah Chorus!" The low of feeding cattle in the meadows comes in as a diaspon. Even the distant watchdog's echoing call drops in the harmonious universal gamut of sound. Life is nearly at flood-tide, but still flowing in. May is not a month for pessimists. The latter are at their best in November, for gloom and fog are their natural environments.
* Eisteddfod is a Welsh youth festival with competition among poets and musicians usually held at the end of May.
The migratory singing birds have nearly all arrived on our English shores. Even thus early, some are leaving us, for the British islands are like an ornithological railway station--some passengers constantly arriving, others departing. Thus the snipe (Scotopax gallinga) and field-fare leave us in May; the lesser whitethroat, lesser redpole, turtle dove, and wryneck have arrived to take their places.
The one natural history fact, above all others, we have to note is the "Happy Families" now being gathered together. All our British birds, migrant and native, are on domestic cares intent. The latter have even begun to rear second broods. Everywhere, the birds are "egging." What a joyful delight it is to inspect their nests and eggs! I have no sympathy for the mere "collector." As a rule he is a selfish Vandal, and will "collect" anything except tombstones! Perhaps he doesn't mind "collecting" them if they are termed "Roman Altars."
But to see that most exquisite of all productions (outside what we produce ourselves, of course), a bird's nest! Many of my readers are undoubtedly acquainted with poor William Hunt's watercolour drawings * of nests and eggs. The sight of them is enough to make you fall in love with the objects. How much thought, care, and love has been expended to make this temporary home a nest! We are glad to call our own homes "nests." Never was there coined a prettier or more expressive word. Nor is the fact minimised because the instinct which enables a bird to construct such a nest is racial instead of individual--that is to say, has been gradually acquired by all the individuals of the species, instead of by only one.
* William Henry Hunt's nature paintings, such as "Chaffinch Nest and May Blossom."
Birds' nesting is one of the most delightful of country exploitations in May. Of course, you will neither steal an egg, nor disturb a callow youngster. But you will notice the fact that the young of all the true singing birds are born very helpless, and that they are three weeks old before they are feathered enough to fly. On the other hand, non-singing birds, like ducklings and chickens, rush out of the egg, and swim and peck about, as if the child was born a hundred years old. What is the reason for this ornithological differentiation? Is it (as is strongly suspected) that the helpless callow youngsters of all singing birds are detained in their nest three weeks or thereabouts, so as to be thoroughly well instructed by the singing lessons of their parent?
Perhaps so, for nature does not understand the meaning of the word "accident."
What a swarm of birds are nesting now--black cap bunting, reed bunting, mountain sparrow, white throat, willow wren, corn crake, wood lark, shrike, goat sucker, wood warbler, spotted fly-catcher, swift, whinchat, sand martin, swallow, house martin, marsh tit, nightingale, &c., all are engaged in "egging." It is a busy and anxious time for them. Timid and yet defiant bright bird eyes glare at you from every nest you discover! Of all creatures, birds have most reason to suspect an enemy even in a sympathetic friend. They have to treat many members of even their own family as enemies, to say nothing of weasels, stoats, and other hedge-haunting and egg-and-small-bird-feeding vermin. So, treat them and their family gently and sympathetically.
What a world of difference between the green roads of sunny France and the green lanes of old England! In the former, the hedges and copses are voiceless and songless. You see nothing but a few magpies. In the latter, nature is chanting loud choruses through her swarming minstrels, the small birds. "All the earth and air" are loud with their precious music. Let us not part with this delightful gift, but protect the little creatures from whom so much that is joyous proceeds!
If the birds find May a busy month, the insects find it even more so. Now is their chance. Fresh green leaves are shooting up and expanding faster than they can be devoured. What an opportunity for caterpillars to breed, get fat, and store up extra tissue and physiological material generally to be worked up into new organs during that period of rest which occurs when they pass into the chrysalis stage! So we cannot wonder that May and June are the chief months during which all sorts of caterpillars develop.
The moths are now out in swarms every evening, lying up all day, and protected by their grey, or mottled, or spotted wings from discovery. Every marking on their wings, however inartistic and insignificant, has a history--even a racial history. There is no room for "accident" in a world which God governs.
What a host of night-flying butterflies or moths come forth with the setting of the sun! Their eyes cannot stand the strain of sunlight any more than those of owls and bats. They have quite a different microscopial structure from the eyes of butterflies.
Among the commoner moths which may be taken this month are the death's head, orange footman, clouded silver grey pug, spotted moth, eyed hawk moth, cinnabar, brown silver line, golden eye, dingy skipper, large ermine, white waves, silver ground carpet, poplar bar, crimson and gold moth, maiden's blush, and a host of others. This list, however, is quite long enough to show that our young naturalists have quite enough to do if they desire to keep pace with the life of the month. I could add many others, but I hate taking a new inventory.
Notwithstanding, it is important to note the day-flying Lepidoptera, or "Butterflies," which put in an appearance during the month of May. Some of our most charming and beautifully-coloured insects appear now. What is the good of their appearing before, when their tinctures would not be visible in the proper light? With the advancing summer, colour is proportionately developed, both in the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
So I advise my young naturalist friends to look out now for the following butterflies:--azure blue (a lovely gem of a thing), golden eye, dingy skipper, orange tip (careering in and along every green lane), pearl-bordered fritillary, Duke of Burgundy, green hair streak, brown argus, clouded skipper, copper, speckled wood, small blue, grey fritillary, painted lady, common blue, dark green fritillary, &c.
Among other insects, belonging, of course, to other orders, now out and about are the dragon flies, haunting the streams wherein they were born and hatched. The field crickets appear; you hear their shrill orchestral music from their hiding-places in the grass. The hop jumper (Euacanthus interruptus) is becoming only too abundant in the hop gardens, and you find it even on the exquisitely graceful leaves of the wild hops which are now festooning the hedge-rows. The females of the wasp (Vespa Vulgaris) are looking out likely spots in the hedge-bands wherein to found colonies.
But above even this outburst of animal activity is that manifested in the vegetable kingdom. If birds are egging, plants are flowering. The two processes are analogous. May is, par excellence, the month of flowers. Its very name conjures up a multitude of blossoms. Trees and shrubs are the first to flower; the humbler wild plants take it more leisurely, and we shall find out their times and seasons later on. First and foremost is the hawthorn--the "May" of the Eastern and Southern counties, the "Hague" of the Northern. Our hedgerows during May are frequently sheeted with its magnificent and deliciously-perfumed masses of flowers. I have never seen, either in equatorial or tropical regions, anything to equal it. In our gardens, the only blossom attempting to rival it is the lilac. May blossoms and lilacs! The association of the two reminds us of the term used by Charles Lamb to designate this particular season of the year--Lilac-tide!
The mountain ash, sycamore (whose green flowers smell so deliciously they need not the attractions of colour to bring hosts of cross-fertilising insects to them), the crab-apple in the hedges (delicatest of coloured blossoms), horse chestnut, in the woods the bird cherry, the oaks, the dewberry in the hedgerows, the holly, buckthorn, spindle tree in the hedges (with its simple but interesting green flowers, undergoing actual transition from the monaecious to the diaecious state), the elder tree (about which so many semi-religious traditions cluster in all countries)--are all in full flower.
In the fields and meadows, the hedgerows, the woods and copses, and on the heaths and commons, flowers are literally "upspringing day and night." The broom is gloriously blossoming. Goats' beard, wild garlic in the damp meadows, campions, sow thistle, blue and white (and, perhaps, pink) milkworts in the tall grass, sweet woodruff at the base of the damp hedges, marsh valerian (male and female flowers quite different in aspect) in boggy places, field madder (with its small, pale, four-petalled blossoms) in the fallow fields, purging or mountain flax on the hill sides, where also the yellow violets are growing, fumitory in the cornfields, shining crane's bill and herb Robert in the hedgerows, with the canary-coloured mouse-eared hawkweed hard by, lady's mantle in the hilly pastures (whose delicately-cut leaf deserves its name), meadow orchids thronging in the meadows (the tall purples of Shakespeare), lousewort in marshes, gromwell in waste places, earth nuts in damp fields, ragged robin and yellow rattle in the meadows, lilies-of-the-valley (but growing in woods and not valleys), forget-me-nots by streams and brooks, where also the rich, blue-flowered brook lime is blossoming, crowds of the magnificent ox-eye daisies in the hay meadows, the lovely bogbean in the places indicated by the familiar name, the red sorrel tinging the tall growing grass with rich colour, the yellow meadow vetchling, birds' foot trefoil, rock rose (on limestone or chalk), tway blade orchids in damp spots, quaking grass in the pastures, yellow pimpernel in the woods, bistort (cooked and eaten as a spinach in Lancashire, Cheshire, and Yorkshire) in damp meadows, dwarf mallow in waste places (notice the parasitic fingers on its leaves), hounds' tongue, yellow cow-wheat, butterfly orchids, gout weed, fever-few, hedge bind weed, and a host of others, and, perhaps, rarer kinds, all are celebrating the "loves of the plants," flowering, and seeding, and dying--one generation succeeding another but each helping to clothe the earth with its annual wedding garment.
† Parents' Review--We have from time to time been requested to reprint occasionally some of the very valuable papers which are buried in the early numbers of the Parents' Review. We propose to do so now and then, and such articles will be marked by a dagger after the title.
Typed by our own blossom :-) Blossom Barden, Mar 2020
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