George Orwell Prize for Unexpectedly beautiful heralds of spring

Have you got any nominations for the George Orwell Prize for unexpectedly beautiful heralds of spring? The great political author, who secretly longed to be a nature writer, was in no doubt of his favourite — the February emergence of the toad with its surprisingly gorgeous golden eye.

This winter has seemed endless. Not cold, in fact worryingly mild, but ceaselessly sodden, windy and storm-ridden. When was the last time the sun showed in the dish cloth sky, forever wringing itself out over our village? So the other morning when the wind suddenly dropped, and a glint of blue promised, I wheeled my bike out and pedalled off to compile my own shortlist of uncelebrated, but sensational harbingers of spring.

The hedges were leafless and gaunt. The larch woods, still orange with winter, wrapped themselves round our little hills like a fox’s tail. Kilburn, Coxwold, Byland, Wass, each village I rode through remained locked in deadseason grey. The only splash of colour was the Robin that appeared when I pulled up at a gate. But it was Lenten images I wanted, not a Christmas card. I returned home in defeat through a hail of Wood Pigeons — the huge flock as sure a sign of winter as you could get.

Naturally, the wind got up again and that afternoon as I worked, the local Jackdaws sailed repeatedly over the house, their dog-like yaps rising and falling. After a while I realised that the flock was dwindling. The birds were breaking off into pairs finding convenient perches. I went to the window. Each neighbouring roof had its duo of these corvids. A Jackdaw couple sat on the TV aerial next door. Sat? Too weak a word; the birds were practically entwined. Side by side, head to head, beak to beak, they were virtually smooching. Even when it began to rain, they just drew closer together like a pair of goths in love. Here was my first selection for the spring list — the unexpectedly gentle courtship of Jackdaws. Who could have known that the bond between crows could be so tender?

Gracing a thousand folksongs, the sadly rare Turtle Dove was once our national ‘lovebird’; isn’t it time to hand that job to Jackdaws? They mate for life, staying together even when breeding attempts fail.

I was still watching the Jackdaws courting when I found my second submission for the prize. The tiles beneath the TV aerial, and all over the rest of the roof, glowed with bright patches of yellow and silver. Lichen grows all the year round but only at this time of year, when everything else is ashen, does it seem to shine so brightly: a hundred mini suns and moons scattered on a roof. Not a plant, nor a member of the fungi family, lichen is a unique, shifting alliance of organisms from different biological kingdoms — fungus, algae, and cyanobacteria.

Like the first two, I found my third signal of spring when I wasn’t searching. Waking in the night — the temperatures had plummeted and our extrovert wooden framed house was creaking in response- I went to the window. The unstreetlighted sky was frosted with stars. Orion, with his famous belt and sword, was over the western side of the village. When I last looked, before Christmas, it had been towards the east. Orion belongs only to the winter skies, soon it’ll be gone beneath the horizon. I’d always known that ancient cultures saw Orion as a hunter, now I could see why. All winter he had been chasing his quarry across the night sky above us, and tonight, just at the start of spring, he had caught it.

Early spring, of course, can often just be marketing-speak for late winter. Next day it snowed. Our ceilidh band was booked to play in the wilds of West Yorkshire. Pulling into some nameless car park, we piled out of the vehicle, packed to the rafters with instruments and equipment. ‘Look at that,’ said Uncle Johnny Corcoran, our Botanist bass player, pointing to the lime tree rising above a litter of white vans. ‘In’t that mistletoe?’ Being northerners, none of us had ever seen the south-growing plant in the wild before. Green in the snow, the shaggy, pendulous decoration of car park mistletoe pulsed slightly in the wind like seaweed on an ebbing tide. When spring brings leaves to the tree, the mistletoe will once again be hidden. Alongside the George Orwell Spring Herald Trophy, is there room in the cabinet for a shield celebrating late winter’s finest shared secrets? ���a4�H