The Joy of Signs in Spring

by Tristan Gooley

Wildflowers (Lesser Celandines) Pointing South

Time outdoors has become precious and there’s a joy in this. We’re all about to get better at appreciating the beauty and meaning of nature. The key to this is the art of outdoor deduction, which is free, fun and very satisfying. But first let me address a possible concern. If you are worried about bumping into others during your daily walk, then fear not. You will soon know the signs used by indigenous tribespeople to reveal that other people are nearby. And, besides, many of the clues we will be considering can be seen from a window.

The sun lies behind many signs, so that’s where we will turn first. We have passed the spring equinox, the day is now longer than the night and the sun is on manoeuvres. It’s racing north and climbing faster than at any other time of year. In the middle of the day the sun is due south and at its highest. It’s already three times higher in the sky than it was at the start of the year. Our lunchtime shadows point north, but they are shrinking towards our feet as the temperature bobs, unevenly, upwards.

The plants sense this change. Trees measure the length of night and some count the number of warm days we’ve had. Their buds are swelling and you may spot this from a distance as a thickening and darkening in the canopy.

It’s traditional to note whether oak comes into leaf before ash, but who notices how spring is marked within each species? Young, short trees come into leaf a couple of weeks before their taller parents, it gives them a share of the light before the canopy spreads. And the small tree on the hillock beats the one in the frost hollow nearby. Hilltops are warmer than dips on frosty mornings, because dense cold air flows downhill, like treacle.

The lowest branches on small oak and beech trees break the rules entirely and hold on to their dead brown leaves all through the winter, a habit called ‘marcescence’. It is one reason why beeches make good hedges. Look for these leaves and you’ll see them and then you’ll find you can’t help noticing them on every walk.

Wildflowers are out and brimming with signs. The trick is to remember that it’s brutal out there. Every plant we see is an extraordinary survivor, it’s the only species from a cast of thousands that prevailed in that particular spot. And now it is in bloom, it is beckoning us closer, whispering, ‘This spot is perfect for me. Now ask yourself, “Why?”’

Each plant is telling us something about the soil, light, water, temperature and animals. Beech trees prefer dry soil, whereas willows and alders point to the water nearby. If you hear a squelch and find it getting soggy underfoot, look for the spiky dark clumps of ‘soft rush’, they are marking the wetter areas for you.

Seek out some daisies. You won’t struggle, we see them everywhere on lawns at this time of year, as the old saying goes, ‘It isn’t spring until you can plant your foot on twelve daisies.’ There are so many that it’s tempting to assume the flowers are scattered randomly over the grass, but that is far from the case. Nothing in nature is random. There is always a reason and that’s where we find our clue.

Daisies like lots of direct sunlight. Find a patch of grass in sunlight, then look for a tree, small building or other object casting a shadow over part of that lawn. You’ll quickly spot how there are more daisies in the sunny areas than the shady areas. The south side of the tree has more daisies than the north side.

Lower your gaze, look at the flowers themselves. They are not all facing exactly the same way, but there is a trend towards the light. Most the flowers are facing in a southerly direction, as this is where most of our sunlight comes from. The wildflowers are making a compass for us. This habit is true in most flowers, but especially those that are pollinated by insects.

The science is straightforward, the flowers are trying to attract insects for pollination and they use vision to find the flowers. The more light a flower reflects, the more luminous it is to the insects and the more successfully it lures the bees.

Many flowers, including daisies, react to light levels. The daisy opens and closes with the day and night cycle, a habit called ‘nyctinasty’ and one that gave the flower its own name: the ‘day’s eye’. They also close when dark clouds loom. A map, compass and weather forecast in one modest little flower.

If showers do threaten to spoil your time outside, there is a silver lining. Look for rainbows, they too are packed full of signs. The best way to spot rainbows is to look for dark clouds in the direction of your shadow. There’s no point looking anywhere else, as you’ll only see rainbows if there is a rain shower in front of you and the sun is directly behind you.

Since most of our weather comes from the west, a rainbow in the morning is a sign that you are about to get wet, whereas one late in the day means the sun will soon be out (don’t bother looking for rainbows in the middle of the day as the sun is too high).

When you find your rainbow, study the colours because they will yield clues about the type of rain out there. The more red you see on the outside of the bow, the bigger the raindrops in that shower – ‘lots of red, means a wet head.’ And if you do see lots of red, look above the main bow, there is very likely to be a secondary bow, with the colours reversed – the red is now on the inside.

Spring is a time of territorial battles. Many have waxed about the joys of birdsong, but I find greater delight in hearing the songs stop. Birdsong is sublime, but it holds less meaning than the sudden silence of the birds. If you are weaving between songs and it suddenly stops, it means the birds are alarmed by something very close. There may be a bird of prey overhead. Or it may be you.

You can work out if you are the cause by standing in the same spot for a few minutes. After a short period of silence, the songbird whose territory you’ve invaded will change its tune, literally. You will hear it issue an alarm call, a short repetitive percussive sound, an agitated robin makes a ‘tk-tk-tk-tk’ sound, for example. One benefit of the lack of airplane and road noise is that we can hear so much that was impossible a few weeks ago.

You might also hear the grey squirrels issue their alarm, a strange, squeaky, rasping, ‘quaar-quaar-chuuuur’. It’s a hard sound to capture with words, which is all the more reason to seek it out. And if you see squirrels flicking their tails, this is an alarm signal too, the squirrel is sending a message to the others that all is not well. In some parts of the world, like Canada, I’ve learned you can communicate with squirrels by mimicking this action with your hand, but it only seems to make them pause in the UK. Try it anyway and let me know how you get on. If nothing else it will make your companion laugh, from more than two metres away.

Once you have sampled these animal alarm signs a few times, you are ready to go native. Find a spot in the woods and listen as the sounds map the world around you. Silence as a hawk swoops overhead, then the song returns. Wait, what is that? You hear the weak staccato drum of bird alarm calls, they ripple louder and nearer, as the strangers approach through the woods. Now the wood pigeons take off, confirming your suspicions. The direction that the wood pigeons take off is a backwards arrow, allowing you to draw a line back to where the walkers are coming from. A squirrel flicks its tail in the nearby tree and reveals the walkers are now closing in. It is time to move. You have gone full Dayak.

Once, in the heart of Borneo, a Penan tribesman told me how his ancestors used the sounds of the forest to stop headhunters from rival tribes sneaking up on them, blades drawn. You too can use woodland sounds to keep your head, as all around you lose theirs.

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