The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by House of Education Students.
We have reached mid-winter. Field and lane, wood and hedgerow, though no longer clad in resplendent green, are still beautiful in quiet colouring of sombre russet, the rich red earth of the ploughed fields, together with the blue distance, lends brightness to the landscape, and the robin, perched on the barest bough, assures us that the world, at least to him, is still very fair.
As the Nature student pursues his way along the now denuded lanes, which seems so bare of interest to the unobservant eye, he yet may meet with many an object which will remind him that Nature is not dead but only sleeps, and in some few cases is already beginning to awake.
There is no month in the whole year when one need say we can find nothing of interest in the outdoor world, for even in this blackest of months, the first of the year, Nature, with her lavish hand, is ever ready to fill us with wonder and gladness by revealing fresh secrets from her inexhaustible storehouse.
Trees in general may form for us a very interesting and engrossing study this month. Every single tree has its peculiar beauty and character, each one has its own particular shape, colour, habit of growth. There are the tall ash trees down by the riverside with their grey, smooth bark and black buds, which in a few weeks will be opening out to disclose their curious, staminate flowers.
The hazels are in blossom quite at the beginning of the month, the male and female flowers growing on the same tree, and fertilization by wind takes place, when the ground is sometimes quite yellow with the golden pollen, which also serves to provide food for bees and other insects.
In the fir copse, the larch may be noticed amongst others, for its little needle-like leaves are some of the first to brave the wintry blasts, and towards the end of the month the male and female flowers, green and crimson, will be forming their buds.
Amongst the dead leaves we may find the blue-green shoots of the daffodil, and even a stunted primrose or two if the weather be mild enough. Nearer the hedge, outside the copse, we shall no doubt come across the green dog's mercury (mercurialis perennis) with its staminate flowers, these grow on separate plants, and the pistillate ones may usually be found rather later, buried in a bunch of shining leaves.
The thrush sings bravely on the topmost bough of the poplar tree; he is also reminding us that spring will not fail to reach us, that her gentle hand will soon be touching the woods, streams, and hills, though now they are yet in the stern grasp of winter. The common thrush, though not in full song till April, yet often cheers us with a few notes, even in December, and last year I was surprised, several mornings in October, to be awakened by the sweet reiterated song of a thrush just outside my window; it seemed to me rather unusual at the end of the autumn.
Let us search yonder hedge-bank for January flowers, of which we may find at least a dozen. There is the little barren strawberry which is sure to be in full blossom; it bears a close resemblance to the fertile strawberry, and is barren only in that its fruit is not edible, this being the mark of distinction from its more popular cousin.
The green shining leaves of the lesser celandine are appearing above the dead leaves, and in another month its starry, yellow blossoms may probably be noticed.
Over the hedge the honeysuckle has a quantity of fresh, green sprouts; this plant and the elder tree are generally to be seen in leaf during the month unless the frosts be unusually severe.
The song of the hedge-sparrow may be heard to advantage in almost any lane or copse, where the bird loves to perch on the high bough of a hawthorn or hazel and utter its short but sweet and welcome melody.
In the hedge-bank, on the moss-grown wall, and, in fact, almost anywhere where there is the least scrap of earth we may look for the little hairy bitter cress (cardamine hirsuta) with its snow-white crucifer flowers surrounded by a rosette of pinnate leaves; it will begin to flower towards the end of the month and flourish right on into late summer.
The shepherd's purse (capsella bursapastoris) is another such weed, and varies in size according to its situation from a few inches to, at least, a foot in height, and correspondingly bushy. We may find it also in flower at this season in most kitchen gardens and by the wayside.
Growing in company with the last-named we shall probably discover the first speedwell of the year (veronica buxbaumii), a very conspicuous bright blue flower almost reminding one of the nemophila of our gardens, and differing from the others of its tribe which flower at this season in its larger and much brighter blue blossom.
The grey field speedwell (veronica agrestis) may also be noticed, it frequents the same sort of ground as the last-named, and varies from a bright blue, fading into a paler, to a pure white.
The common sallow, with its olive-tinted, wiry stems, is showing buds of silver, and in some few cases the catkins may be unfolding their staminate and pistillate flowers, which are so much frequented by bees when fully out.
The ploughed fields are usually a happy hunting ground during this month, for weeds seem to flourish there long before any sign of the intended crop is seen. The red dead nettle (lamium purpureum) is sure to be one of the first of January flowers, for there is hardly a week in the year when its purplish labiate blossoms are not to be found. Its white relation is not quite so prolific, but in some sheltered places where there is plenty of earth, we shall certainly find a few of its flowers.
In among the weeds, if we look carefully, we may perchance see a very tiny, insignificant plant, which I have sometimes found out at this time of the year. It is the field lady's mantle (alchemilla arvensis), and bears blossoms resembling the common lady's mantle, only smaller and even greener. This plant is no doubt often overlooked by the less observant botanist, as its flowers, being very insignificant, must be searched for with much perseverance.
Still making our way diligently over the clods of earth, we may yet see several other winter specimens, such as the petty spurge, with milky, acrid juice; the sun spurge, like the latter, but larger in all its parts; two or three crimson-tipped daisies; and most probably a stunted, stemless dandelion, struggling out in the fitful sunshine of the latter days of the month.
Growing parasitically on a variety of trees, there are bunches of mistletoe, the leaves and stems of which are of a vivid shade of green. This plant is dioecious [some plants are male, some are female], and its fruit will be ripe this month if the Christmas season has allowed any to remain on its boughs. The flowers, which are almost sessile [attached at the base; no stem] in the forks of the branches, with very minute petals, will not be out until March or April.
We may now gather ivy at its best, the rich dark berries being fully ripe, although it is only a short time since the bees and butterflies were gathering round its attractive, greenish blossoms. If we cut through the black berries, we shall see the albumen, which is the food stored up for the development of the seeds. Other instances of this food store may be noticed in the buttercup, tulip and wheat.
Let us make our way to yonder reed-fringed lake where alders and willows are so abundant. The former trees will appear quite dense, as though some few remaining leaves had survived the autumn gales, but on nearer inspection we find we must attribute the dark, black patches to the empty seedcases of the cone-like fruit which remain on the trees even until the new fruit is ripe. These little cones are a means of propagating the tree by falling off into the water, and being oily within, they protect the seeds from decay, and floating further down the stream, plant themselves in the damp soil some distance from the parent tree. Hanging also profusely from the branches of the alder we may notice the long, hard, male catkins, which in a very short time will be gracefully swaying in the breeze, and, like the hazel, shedding their pollen all around. The little female catkins are to be seen close to the male, growing behind them, so to speak, on the stem, and are easily recognized at this time by their much smaller size.
Another interesting and beautiful tree which we may find intermingled with the alders and willows is the trembling poplar or aspen, so-called, I presume, because its leaves are hardly ever still. There is not much sign of life at present in its ashen-grey boughs, but it will not be long ere the buds produce catkins, both male and female, covered with an exquisite grey down, hardly perceptible to the casual observer, but worthy of our closest examination.
The buds of the elms are beginning to swell, and rooks may be seen towards the end of the month carrying suggestive twigs in their bills, though it is generally February before most of the birds have mated.
Empty snail shells are abundant by the hedge-banks, over the ploughed fields, and elsewhere, the debris of the thrush's meal; he enjoys a snail as much as anything, seizing the unfortunate victim in his beak, he bears him off to the nearest stone or hard substance, where he breaks the shell and swallows its succulent contents with all the enjoyment of a finished epicure.
Bullfinches may be seen in their flight along the lanes, their note at this season is generally rather mournful, amounting to one solitary pipe. They are thankful for the berries found on the trees in the copse, but will not venture very near our houses.
If the snow gathers thick upon the ground we cannot pursue our botanical studies with so much ease, but the many little birds which will, through hunger, be driven to our doors, may occupy much of our attention. Starlings will come in small flocks and greedily devour all food within reach; robins are nearly as bold; the chaffinches are rather shyer, yet cannot resist a shower of hemp seed thrown out on to the gravel path; blackbirds and thrushes will vie with each other for the large soft morsels of soaked bread, and the sparrow, always the most audacious, carries off a share of the booty out of all proportion to his size.
Most of our little fur-coated animals are now wrapped in their winter sleep secure underground, awaiting the earliest tokens of spring-like weather. The moths and butterflies lie concealed in endless hiding-places hard for many to find. There is as yet no sign of buzzing wing or creeping insect, the reign of silence is supreme; even the frogs have ceased to croak, and have retired to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the pond.
Of all our outdoor friends, the birds alone never desert us, not even when winter rules us with a rod of ice and their sufferings are severe, we still find them bright and friendly, heaven-sent messengers to cheer us on the darkest days when snow lies deep, and winds whistle through the bare trees.
Though Nature sleeps and all fair things seem dead, the seeing eye may yet find wondrous beauty in the wild scenes of this storm-beridden month, and may we not say with the poet of Nature, William Cowper:--
"O Winter, ruler of the inverted year,
Typed by Monica Cooper, March, 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023
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