The smells and sounds of spring: from the freshly cut grass to the hustle and bustle and turf wars in the hedges.
In my garden maintenance role, it is entrusted to me to keep the lawns and turf of Worcestershire in check for many of my clients. From Lawn Tennis Associations to business parks, the green stuff is entrusted to my care.
What this means in reality is that I am often the first person people encounter on their way to the office who is cutting the lawn. I am the harbinger of spring to many of the staff on my clients’ grounds: and there can’t be many people in all the world who have received the complementary smile as the office worker inhales the lovely aroma freed by my blades so often as I have.
“I love the smell of cut grass,” some will say. “It means spring is finally here.”
If I had a penny for every time someone had mentioned that to me in my garden maintenance role then I’d still be twenty pence shy of a quid, but it is still a nice sentiment to hear, and one that I wholly share.
But the truth of the matter is that the smell given off by cut grass is not quite as romantic as many people would assume. It is a violent cocktail of chemical compounds, collectively known as Green Leaf Volatiles, that are given off simultaneously to heal damaged cells, to fight off infection, and to warn nearby plants of an impending blade whirring at the heady speed of 3000 rotations a minute. It also contains compounds that are attractive to the predators of likely pest species, aimed to draw them in and to eat the creatures that, on an evolutionary scale, are most likely to be committing such damage.
It is therefore a purely cultural impact that seems to have affected the human taste for this smell of carnage. We all like the smell of cut grass as it’s indicative of the warm days when the daylight hours are growing longer and hotter. It is a cultural and social device that we have now imbibed to the point of addiction and association. (In fact, one of the most charming stories I have heard was when I was talking to a sailor friend of mine who was travelling through the Western Approaches in spring a few years ago, on the final stretch of a voyage from America in a small boat. He told me that the first times he sensed the land was with his nose – he claims he could smell England’s cut grass before he even set eyes on Albion. If this sounds preposterous then I would refer you to the accounts of sailors in the Napoleonic Wars: after weeks at sea, there are accounts of a notable change in the smell when land is just over the horizon. Even Bear Grylls claims to have experienced this too).
And it’s not just the smells and colours of nature that is changing by the day at this time. The soundtrack is more voluble than ever at this time of year. The squeals of the swallow can be heard as the males are now returned to stake their claim for the best nesting sites. The now familiar ‘chiff-chaff’ song of the male chiffchaff can be heard echoing from on high from every Worcestershire hedgerow. (Every year at the beginning of spring I always mistake the first renditions of this for an out-of-tune great tit, with it’s ‘teach-er, teach-er,’ song, until I spot the beige green flutter of the new arrival amongst the opening buds of the trees.
Yet the one I hanse’t heard yet this year, in the early mornings as is customary, is the cuckoo. Last year was not a good year for this species. I only heard vague and far-off calls that were half-imagined in the morning air and were fewer and weaker than previous years. This year, there are reports on birding sites in Worcester that cuckoos have been heard (on the Malvern Hills and in Stourport), but for myself, I am still listening.
I suppose one species decline marks another’s triumph however. The numbers of house sparrows and dunnocks I have seen in recent months, due to the mild winter, has shot up. As too have greenfinches and goldfinches, and, for me particularly gladdening as they are amongst my favourite birds, the long-tailed tit.
Indeed, I have made it a mission this spring and summer to find the nest site of these magnificent little birds. They are the builders of the British birds, creating a nest that is a veritable home, with a rooftop and entrance hole, composed of lichens and secured with spider webs, then lined with up to 2000 feathers, the purpose is to help such a small animal conserve its body heat in the cooler nights and in the time spent on the eggs, when energy demands are higher due to their being less time for food gathering.
Have you noticed the sights and smells of spring? And have you heard any newcomers as the birds are returning from Africa and Europe? And let me know if you’ve heard a cuckoo!