Bi-weekly blog by guest writer Lia Leendertz
I once flew out of the country for a week at almost precisely this time of the year, to sandstone- and beige-hued Cypress, for a week of family wedding celebrations: mezze, swimming pools and sunburn. The countryside was parched in that glorious Mediterranean way. A few lingering spring flowers could still be seen – they lift their heads above the parapet briefly before the heat of summer truly hits – but the island’s resting state of cicadas and dust was very much in the ascendant.
We had flown out in mid-May and flew back at the end of it, and perhaps it was the adjustment I had made to an entirely biscuit-shaded landscape that make me sit up in my seat and gawp at the Somerset countryside as we descended into Bristol airport. Green. Green like I’d never seen. It had been green as we had left but growth at this time of year feels almost exponential, and by the time we returned, a little plumper, a little pink on shoulders and noses, the hedgerows and trees seemed to have leaped up at us by several feet. It was glorious to see.
I have been out in my own garden hunting for colour this week and have found almost none, unless we are counting emerald, lime and chartreuse. This was not the case a week ago when there were two shades of lilac in bloom, a small sea (the Baltic, perhaps) of forget-me-nots, and a bevy of blossoming fruit trees. All looked softly colourful, in a fluffy, pastel sort of way. Incidentally it won’t be the case in a few weeks: I found plenty of rose, clematis and other buds just about to break. But right now in the garden the blossom has faded and green is the colour.
It’s very possible that if I were a better gardener this would not be happening. I’m sure there are ways to bridge this gap and many gardens flushed with colour right now. But I always notice this lull in my own garden, a natural breathing space between spring and summer over this couple of weeks. Perhaps it is due to the plants I personally favour, and a predominance of fruit trees, or perhaps this is the just the way it should be. I don’t want to fill this lull with clever planting. I have come to like it, and I think it suits the season and the month, which has always felt more like a month of expectation than delivery.
The May Queen that graces village fetes at the beginning of the month personifies this moment in the year, and this sense of bigger things to come. She is traditionally young and beautiful, not quite a child and not quite a woman, but someone on the cusp of her full life. There is an innocence and purity about the crowning of the queen but she is not entirely guileless: there is a hint of a darker side to the celebrations (some traditions include a ritualised sacrifice), and just as the blossom that she wears on her crown will soon be pollinated, so the May Queen is essentially a woman on the edge of her sexual awakening. This is captured in rather melodramatic fashion in Tennyson’s ‘The May Queen’. Here our soon-to-be May Queen starts the poem all blossom, garlands and white dresses but before long is revelling in her status over the other unchosen girls and flirting cruelly with poor Robin, who she passes over for - one is lead to suspect - one of the ‘bolder lads’ she expects to meet on the day. Such flagrant enjoyment of her own beauty and youth cannot go unpunished of course and in true Victorian style we then fast forward to New Year’s day where we find our heroine dying of some unnamed illness that may bear mysterious relation to her ‘wild and wayward’ ways. That’ll teach her for messing with those shepherd boys.
Put aside the death-by sexual-liberation of Tennyson’s version and I do think the May Queen is a very apt figure for this moment in the year. Perhaps that is why she has persisted so long while so many other of our semi-pagan celebrations have drifted away from us. I like the idea that now, post-blossom, just a few weeks after May Day, the garden, the hedgerows, and the landscape are taking a breath – a green and verdant pause - before launching into the real burgeoning work of life: the fruiting and reproducing that it must complete before the year is out.