They knew where to go for the first of everything: the first snowdrops, the first catkin, primroses, violets, forget-me-nots, wild roses, honeysuckle. These flowers appeared in turn on the nursery sills almost as soon as they appeared in the woods and fields.
—The Priory, Dorothy Whipple
“I should fall back on Nature, hard, if I were you.”
—Ordinary Families, E. Arnot Robertson
As a lifelong reader of novels written in Britain before and between the two world wars—and there is a very large group of these, many under the Persephone and Virago imprints—I am always amazed by the familiarity with which every possible bird, tree, and wild plant is mentioned. One of the reasons I love these books is that the characters are generally nature lovers and often gardeners. Of course, in England, the land surrounding a house is always a garden, never a yard, so the word garden is used much more often than it would be in an American book.
From toddler-age on up, the people in these novels can identify almost everything they see outdoors, and they’re outdoors a lot. Even the city dwellers have country retreats that they visit often. From the first snowdrop to the last Michaelmas daisy, plants and their seasons are as much a part of the narrative as births, marriages, and deaths.
I didn’t have quite this intimacy with nature growing up, though I was certainly outside a lot. We liked plants and animals, but we didn’t really know too much about them. It was only when I started gardening that I learned all the names, and I’m still clueless about a lot of what I see on walks.
There is hope, however. Our local preserves are excellent and well-equipped with helpful signage. I have books, which still work the best for plant identification; I’ve given up on the apps.
We did have high expectations of our feeder (with its expensive gourmet seed), but it seems to attract very uninteresting species: mainly house sparrows, house finches, and a few chickadees. For better birds, you have to head to the parks and preserves.
So that’s my plan this year. I’ll visit the Audubon preserves—especially the bog that has the wild orchids—and the many other wildflower and bird spotting sites and sharpen my knowledge. 2016 will be a good year to fall back on nature—hard. Gardening won’t be enough.