Rites of Spring and Rough Edges

Columns | R S Hughes | May 2011

People have different methods of marking the changing of the seasons. British nature writer Richard Mabey says he has two specific ‘seasonal rites of passage’ to which he is sentimentally attached: seeing the first swifts of the year over the parish church from his study window, and walking in a particular corner of his own wood on the day when the young beech leaves unfurl over the bluebells – "an experience that, with the sunlight filtering through the semi-translucent new leaves and the bluebells rippling underfoot, is like walking underwater."

Seasonal rites of passage don’t have to be entirely natural. Since living in Vienna, my seasonal compass flicks from winter to spring with help from a number of semi-natural occurrences: The setting out of tables and chairs on Vienna sidewalks by the city’s restaurateurs, the un-battening down of the hatches of the Donaukanal’s cafes and bars, and the proliferation of Spargel-themed menu cards, to name just three.

But the natural onset of spring is hard to miss too. One of the more noticeable natural phenomena in Vienna is the sudden profusion of wild garlic. Seemingly overnight, its lush green leaves flood the wooded areas of some of the city’s parks, gardens and riverbanks, turning bare earth into a sea of green that undulates in the breeze.

On a recent trip to the banks of the Danube in Korneuburg, I joined dozens of Bärlauch (wild garlic) pickers, stuffing leaves into collecting bags. An hour later, with the help of said leaves, pine nuts, olive oil, parmesan cheese and pasta, I was sitting down to a foraged feast. In our world of supermarkets and convenience foods, there’s something very satisfying about providing a key ingredient oneself; something many Austrians seem to appreciate.

Spring also marks the return to the city of many species of birds that have wintered in warmer climes. One noteworthy returnee is the black redstart; a robin-sized creature with a rust-red tail, bold white wing patch and charcoal grey upper parts that winters south of Austria, predominantly in Africa and Asia. Though shy and flitting, this bird can’t quite seem to resist human company, and from March onwards, it’s a common visitor to the city, enjoying urban landscapes.

Not only is the species interesting for its appearance and behavior, in some regions it’s also a sign of the times.

"The black redstart is a bird of inner city dereliction and economic depression," states Birds Britannica. According to the book, their annus mirabilis in the UK came in 1942, heavily assisted by the German Luftwaffe, which left swathes of the capital in ruin – perfect conditions for what is originally a rock-haunting species.

The black redstart, therefore, also raises bigger questions about what really constitutes a wild place, something that is particularly prescient to this column, given that it attempts to take note of the wildlife in and around a city, albeit one less derelict than many. "The inner-city wasteland in which the species thrives completely subverts our conventional notions about beauty in landscape …Uncared for, unmanaged and unintentional – it is, in a way, the nearest thing to true wilderness that we posses," Birds Britannica’s authors write.

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