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Why do we like springtime so much?

Update: The `hungry time’ was even later in the year than I said. See below.

A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday’s Times:

I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson’s Bay and Labrador, I would be trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.

A snowfield of wood anemones

Is there anything as glorious as an English spring? I don’t want to sound jingoistic, but surely nowhere does it quite as well as we do. In most of America, spring is a shockingly sudden transition from cold and mud to heat and mosquitoes, with a brief dogwood moment in between. My American-born wife retorts that we do every other season abominably. Certainly the Americans do autumn (fall) much better than we do; they have clear, crisp days and bright leaves, while we shelter from gales and drizzle. That is because we live downwind of an ocean, which is warm in autumn and generates wet weather.

And (not to keep boasting) we generally do spring better than most of Eurasia, too. The almond blossom is nice in Andalusia, and the thaw on the Ob is (I am told) magnificent, but nobody can match a dawn chorus of birds in an English copse. The chiffchaff and the chaffinch, the blackcap and the blackbird, the rapture-recapturing song thrush, the drowsy numbness of the nightingale – you just cannot beat them. A tropical rain forest chorus is an atonal mess of squawks and honks.

Few knew the magic of spring better than my fellow Northumbrian Sir Edward Grey, who was always a naturalist first and a statesman second, as revealed by his obsession with seeing beech leaves at their freshest: “A Japanese Mission is being sent all the way from Japan on purpose to destroy by another official dinner my beech Sunday in May,” he wrote in 1907, after a year as Foreign Secretary.

Spring raises the spirits. A winter snowfall, a summer heat wave and an autumn gale can be thrilling but never quite so life-enhancing as a fine day in April. Every swallow, every primrose and every bumblebee seems to be infected with contagious joy. It’s a myth, of course. They are not being joyful, only randy. Maybe that is true of us, too. Maybe the excitement we feel about warmer breezes is really just a form of seasonal lust. A young man’s fancy . . .

And yet this makes no evolutionary sense. Human beings do not even have a mating season, let alone breed in spring. If we did have a rut, it would be in autumn, like red deer, so that babies could be born at a time of plenty. We are a tropical species that lived exclusively in Africa until just 65,000 years ago and, like the other great apes, throughout our history we bred at all times of the year. Sure, young men feel lusty in spring, but it’s the first cotton dresses that do it, not seasonal instinct.

In fact, we never even knew about spring for 90 per cent of our history as Homo sapiens. Unlike our cousins the Neanderthals, who spent nearly half a million years (and four ice ages) living through long, dark European winters, we knew only wet and dry seasons. It seems unlikely, by the way, that this spring worship is a late-evolving northern European peculiarity, bred into just white people by 20,000 northern springs: that would imply that black people do not feel the same way about spring in England as white people, but they do.

Those who have lived in the tropics say that the arrival of rain after a tropical drought is just as joyous a moment as the arrival of spring after a northern winter. Maybe, then, spring worship is a sort of mental proxy in our tropical savannah souls for the ending of the dry season, the coming of the rains, the flush of green, the salient colours of new fruit and the sudden proliferation of bird’s eggs, new-born gazelles and other tasty morsels.

Or perhaps to like spring is not instinct at all but a cultural tradition passed down by our forebears and drummed into us by Wordsworth, Housman and Browning. It certainly must have been a relief to see the back of winter when we spent our days outdoors.

Yet back in the Middle Ages and even into the 18th century, spring was the “hunger season”, when the winter stores of grain ran out and the dairy cows stood dry for lack of hay.

It was often in April or May, not January, that hapless peasants starved to death after lean harvests.

[Update: Tim Worstall writes in to point out that the hungry time was even later, in June and July. In this book, for example, it says:

“….since the midsummer harvest produced no food for humans…….So when the arduous work of haymaking was done the medieval cultivator found himself facing another stretch that was harder still- the toughest month of the entire year, in fact, sincce the spring crops had not matured. The barns were at their lowest point and the grain bins could well be empty. Tantalisingly, on the very eve of the August harvest, people could find themselves starving in the balmiest month of all. July was the time of another phenomenon quite unknown to us in the modern West- “the hungry gap”.]

The coming abundance of oats, fruit, nuts and piglets was still many weeks or months away, and a few sticks of rhubarb or the odd pigeon squab were thin consolation. (“Here we go gathering nuts in May” never made sense.) So here I stand, a killjoy rationalist, to tell you that the pleasure Wordsworth felt in the “twofold shout” of the cuckoo, or Housman in “the cherry hung with snow”, or Browning in tiny leaves round the elm-tree bole is understandable – yet inexplicable. And none the worse for it.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  general  rational-optimist  the-times