There’s a curious sadness in unplanned leavings, when you remember all the things that you won’t be able to say goodbye to, because they only come round once a year and now you are going, before they will return. If only I’d known last year, you think, that this would be the last time I’d see the first oystercatcher in February, or the first marsh marigold in the bog, then I could have stood and fixed them in my memory, and told them how much I’ve appreciated them. For those signs that spring is coming, finally, after the long dark days of an Outer Hebridean winter, are the signs you value most of all. Each year the same irrational relief, pushing aside for another season the fear that maybe this time, there will be no return of the light.
In this harsh place, spring doesn’t announce itself with a clatter of bursting buds or the suddenness of a dawn chorus in garden trees. Spring creeps up on you subtly, little by little, day by day. The smallest brightening in the green of the grass down by the geo; the briefest cry of a passing skylark overhead. But I have grown to know these small signs, and to love them, and most beloved of all is the return of the breeding pair of lapwings who come to the headland each year in late May to hatch their young. I love those lapwings. I love their thick rounded wingtips, the frantic circling cries as strangers come close to the vicinity of their eggs. It has been bothering me that the lapwing would come this year and I wouldn’t be there to greet them, and then to rush back to the house to tell David ‘The lapwings are coming! The lapwings are coming!’ as if they were the vanguard of some fire-carrying army come to save us from all that is dark and full of sorrow.
And so it was to my immense joy that I saw a single lapwing circling the headland early yesterday morning. And I remembered that last year in March there had been a single scout too, maybe scoping out the territory for May’s longer stay. I stood and lifted my head to watch for as long as the lapwing flew, grateful for the simple but somehow necessary gift of it.
And then this morning, twenty or so whooper swans landed on the loch at the bottom of the croft, the first of the northwards-migrating flocks that will fill our days with pleasure and sound for the next couple of weeks. I am filled with gladness not to have missed them too, and am reminded of Ruth Padel’s beautiful poem on migration from The Mara Crossing , ‘Time to Fly’:
You go from pole to pole, you go because you can,
you sleep and mate on the wing.
You go because you need a place to shed your skin