A merle of blackbirds and sprouting bulbs: field notes from the garden 02.12.17

The first Saturday in December dawns warmer than the snow, frost and ice of last week’s cold assault.

The flagstones in the garden are damp, yet this feels triggered neither by rainfall or frost.  It’s almost as if the earth has exhaled, and cold breath has hit a floor of blotting paper, where moisture has spread and seeped; been absorbed.

As last weekend, the air is heavy with the industry of birds.  This week, however, the activity feels a level lower to the ground; it’s the bushes and shrubs that host invisible motorways, rather than the high sky above them.

A group of blackbirds have adopted the roof of my shed as a platform for silent reveries, social gatherings and general activity.  I search for the collective term, and options are limited.  A ‘merle’ of blackbirds captures my attention, from the Old French merle (blackbird), and the Latin merulus (blackbird).

The term seems to fit, and a grand descriptor is fitting, for a bird that is often dismissed of any interest, given its status as a ‘common’ British garden bird.  This ‘merle’ of blackbirds has become like family over the past few weeks, ever-present and curious.

The lilac bush at the end of the garden is now fully stripped back to its bare branches.  The naked stems and branches give the appearance of arteries, veins, capillaries.  In many ways, I suppose that they are.

A holly plant (it is too linear and sparse to be classified as a ‘bush’) stands proudly and vividly inside of these branches.  The effect is one of transition; when you look through a pair of binoculars or a camera lens, and pull focus to sharpen one area, as opposed to another.  The lilac’s annual demise now fades into the background, as the holly within it is brought into view with a sharpness of focus.

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The stream bubbles incessantly below me, less engorged than previous weeks, but full of assertive direction and purpose.  Unlike other gardens, the presence of a stream maintains a sense of energy, and thus life: continual motion, drive and forward movement that somehow makes winter feel more alive.

My magnolia now has only two leaves clinging to its thin branches.  Closer to the soil, two ferns, side-by-side, are pure contradictions; one withered, brown and frail – straw-like – the other green, vibrant and crisp, the tips of its fronts as sharp as the frost that adorned it the week prior.

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Around me, further signs of life – small, yet significant – continue to show.  A small, unidentified plastic flowerpot now bears two green horns that have broken the surface.  The joy of seeing new life is only matched by my curiosity as to what these forgotten plants are.

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I step into the shed and move some items around.  A tray of forgotten bulbs from the summer are also sprouting in the black plastic tray they were deposited in.  I get them out to examine them and feel the delicate strands of hair-like roots.  The brown bulb is cool, hard and shines in my hands; the delicate green life sprouting forth from its crown is the ultimate symbol of new life, growing in spite of any soil, planting, or active human endeavour.

I take the last deep draught of my now lukewarm coffee, close the shed, and return to the house, wondering what the day ahead has in store.

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