— Sturdy March, with brows full sternly bent,
And armed strongly, rode upon a ram,
The same which over Hellespontus swam.
Yet in his hand a spade was also bent
And in a bag all sorts of weeds, y same
Which on the earth he strewed as he went,
And filled her womb with fruitful hope of nourishment.
MARCH is the first month of Spring. He is Nature’s Old Forester, going through the woods and dotting the trees with green, to mark out the spots where the future leaves are to be hung. The sun throws a golden glory over the eastern hills, as the village-clock from the ivy-covered tower tolls six, gilding the hands and the figures that were scarcely visible two hours later a few weeks ago.
The streams now hurry along with a rapid motion, as if they had no time to dally with, and play round the impending pebbles, but were eager to rush along the green meadow-lands, to tell the flowers it is time to awaken. we hear the cottagers greeting each other with kind ‘Good morning,’ across the paled garden-fences in the sunrise, and talking about the healthy look of the up-coming peas, and the promise in a few days of a dish of early spinach. Under the old oak, surrounded with rustic seats, they congregate on the village-green, in the mild March evenings. and talk about the forward spring, and how they have battled through the long hard winter, and, looking towards the green churchyard, speak in low voices of those who have been borne thither to sleep out their long sleep since ‘last primrose-time,’ and they thank God that they are still alive and well, and are grateful for the fine weather, ‘it has pleased Him to send them at last.’
Now rustic figures move across the landscape, and give a picturesque life to the scenery. You see the ploughboy returning from his labour, seated sideways on one of his horses, humming a line or two of some love-lorn ditty, and when his memory fails to supply the words, whistling the remainder of the tune. The butcher-boy rattles merrily by in his blue-coat, throwing a saucy word to every one he passes; and if he thinks at all of the pretty lambs that are bleating in his cart, it is only about how much they will weigh when they are killed. The old woman moves slowly along in her red cloak, with basket on arm, on her way to supply her customers with new-laid eggs. So the figures move over the brown winding roads between the budding hedges in red, blue, and grey, such as a painter loves to seize upon to give light, and colour, to his landscape. A few weeks ago those roads seemed uninhabited.
The early-yeaned lambs have now become strong, and may be seen playing with one another, their chief amusement being that of racing, as if they know what heavy weight their little legs will have to bear when their feeders begin to lay as much mutton on their backs as they can well walk under – so enjoy the lightness of their young lean days. There is no cry so childlike as that of a lamb that has lost its dam, and how eagerly it sets off at the first bleat the ewe gives: in an instant it recognises that sound from all the rest, while to our ears that of the whole flock sounds alike Dumb animals we may call them, but all of them have a language which they understand; they give utterance to their feelings of joy, love, and pain, and when in distress call for help, and, as we have witnessed, hurry to the aid of one another. The osier-peelers are now busy at work in the osier-holts; it is almost the first out-of-door employment the poor people find in spring, and very pleasant it is to see the white-peeled willows lying about to dry on the young grass, though it is cold work by a windy river side for the poor women and children on a bleak March day. As soon as the sap rises, the bark-peelers commence stripping the trees in the woods, and we know but few country smells that equal the aroma of the piled-up bark. But the trees have a strange ghastly look after they are stripped – unless they are at once removed – standing like bleached skeletons when the foliage hangs on the surrounding branches. The rumbling wagon is a pretty sight moving through the wood, between openings of the trees, piled high with bark, where wheel never passes, excepting on such occasions, or when the timber is removed. The great ground-bee, that seems to have no hive, does blundering by, then alights on some green patch of grass in the underwood, though what he finds there to feed upon is a puzzle to you, even if you kneel down beside him, as we have done, and watch every so narrowly.
How beautiful the cloud and sunshine seem chasing each other over the tender grass! You see the patch of daisies shadowed for a few moments, then the sunshine sweeps over them, and all their silver frills seem suddenly touched with gold, which the wind sets in motion. Our forefathers well named this month ‘March many-weathers,’ and said that ‘it came in like a lion, and went out like a lamb,’ for it is made up of sunshine and cloud, shower and storm, often causing the horn-fisted ploughman to beat his hands across his chest in the morning to warm them, and before noon compelling him to throw off his smock-frock and sleeved waistcoat, and wipe the perspiration from his forehead with his shirt sleeve, as he stands between the plough-stilts at the end of the newly-made furrow. Still we can now plant our ‘foot upon nine daisies,’ and not until that can be done do the old-fashioned country people believe that spring is really come. We have seen a grey-haired grandsire do this, and smile as he called to his old dame to count the daisies, and see that his foot fairly covered the proper number.
Ants now begin to run across our paths, and sometimes during a walk in the country you may chance to stumble upon the nest of the wood-ant. At a first glance it looks like a large heap of litter, where dead leaves and short withered grass have been thrown lightly down upon the earth; perhaps at the moment there is no sign of life about it, beyond a straggler or two at the base of the mound. Thrust in the point of your stick, and all the ground will be alive in a moment; nothing but a mass of moving ants will be seen where you have probed. Nor will it do to stay too long, for they will be under your trousers and up your boots, and you will soon feel as if scores of red-hot needles were run into you, for they wound sharply. If you want the clean skeleton of a mouse, bird, or any other small animal, throw it on the nest of the wood-ant, and on the following day you will find every bone as bare and clean as if it had been scraped. Snakes may now be seen basking in some sunny spot, generally near a water-course, for they are beautiful swimmers and fond of water. They have slept away the winter under the dead leaves, or among the roots, and in the holes of trees, or wherever they could find shelter. In ponds and ditches may also be seen thousands of round-headed long-tailed tadpoles, which, if not devoured, will soon become nimble young frogs, when they have a little better chance of escaping the jaws of fishes and wildfowl, for no end of birds, fishes, reptiles, and quadrupeds feed on them. Only a few weeks ago the frogs were in a torpid state, and sunk like stones beneath the mud. Since then they left those black spots, which may be seen floating in a jellied mass on the water, and soon from this spawn the myriads of lively tadpoles we now see sprang into life. Experienced gardeners never drive frogs out of their grounds, as they are great destroyers of slugs, which seem to be their favourite food. Amongst the tadpoles the water-rat may now be seen swimming about and nibbling at some leaf, or overhanging blade of grass, his tail acting as a rudder, by which he can steer himself into any little nook, wheresoever he may take a fancy to go. If you are near enough, you will see his rich silky hair covered with bright silver-like bubbles as they sink into the water, and he is a most graceful swimmer. The entrance to his nest is generally under the water; throw a stone and he will dive down in a moment, and when he has passed the watery basement, he at once ascends his warm dry nest, in which, on one occasion, a gallon of potatoes was found, that he had hoarded up to last him through the winter Pleasant is it on a fine March day to stand on some rustic bridge – it may be only a plank thrown across the stream – and watch the fishes as they glide by, or pause and turn in the water, or to see the great pike basking near the surface, as if asleep in the sunshine. Occasionally a bird will dart out from the sedge, or leave off tugging at the head of the tall bulrush, and hasten away between the willows, that seem to give a silvery shiver, every time the breeze turns up the underpart of their leaves to the light. In solitary places, by deep watercourses, the solemn plunge of the otter may sometimes be heard, as he darts in after his prey, or you may start him from the bank where he is feeding on the fish he has captured.
The perfume of violets and the song of the blackcap are delights which may often be enjoyed together while walking out at this season of the year, for the blackcap, whose song is only equalled by that of the nightingale, is one of the earliest birds that arrives. Though he is a droll-looking little fellow in his black wig, which seems too big for his head, yet, listen to him! and if you have never heard him before, you will hear such music as you would hardly think such an organ as a bird’s throat could make. Later in the season, it often builds its compact nest amid the sheltering leaves of the ivy, in which it lays four or five eggs, which are fancifully dashed with darker spots of a similar hue.
Now the nests of the blackbird and thrush may be seen in the hedges, before the leaves are fully out, for they are our earliest builders, as well as the first to awaken Winter with their songs. As if to prepare better for the cold, to which their young are exposed, through being hatched so soon as they are, they both plaster their nests inside with mud, until they are as smooth as a basin. They begin singing at the first break of dawn, and may be heard again as the day closes. We have frequently heard them before three in the morning in summer. The blackbird is called ‘golden bill’ by country people, and the ‘ouzel cock’ of our old ballad poetry. It is not easy to tell males from females during the first year, but in the second year the male has the ‘golden bill.’ If undisturbed, the blackbird will build for many seasons in the same spot, often only repairing its old nest. No young birds are more easily reared, as they will eat almost anything. Both the nests and eggs of the thrush ad blackbird are much alike.
To one who does not mind a noise there is great amusement to be found now in living near a rookery, for there is always something or another going on in that great airy city overhead. They are nearly all thieves, and think nothing of staling the foundation from one another’s houses during the building season. When some incorrigible blackguard cannot be beaten into order, they all unite and drive him away; neck and crop do they bundle him out. Let him only shew so much as his beak in the rookery again after his ejectment, and the whole police force are out and at him in a moment. No peace will he ever have there any more during that season, though perhaps he may make it up again with them during the next winter in the woods. We like to hear them cawing from the windy high elm-trees, which overhang some old hall grey with the moss and lichen of forgotten years. The sound they make seems to give a quiet dreamy air to the whole landscape.
We derive the present name of this month from the Romans, among whom it was at an early period the first month of the year, as it continued to be in several countries to a comparatively late period.1 For commencing the year with this month there seems a sufficient reason in the fact of its being the first season, after the dead of the year, in which decided symptoms of a renewal of growth take place. And for the Romans to dedicate their first month to Mars, and call it Martius, seems equally natural, considering the importance they attached to war, and the use they made of it.
‘The month,’ says Brady, ‘is portrayed as a man of a tawny colour and fierce aspect, with a helmet on his head – so far typical of Mars – while, appropriate to the season, he is represented leaning on a spade, holding almond blossoms and scions in his left hand, with a basket of seeds on his arm, and in his right hand the sign Aries, or the Ram, which the sun enters on the 20th of this month, thereby denoting the augmented power of the sun’s rays, which in ancient hieroglyphics were expressed by the horns of animals.
CHARACTERISTICS OF MARCH.
March is noted as a dry month. Its dust it looked for, and becomes the subject of congratulation, on account of the importance of dry weather at this time for sowing and planting. The idea has been embodied in proverbs, as ‘A peck of March never begs its bread.’ Blustering winds usually prevail more or less throughout a considerable part of the month, but mostly in the earlier portion. Hence, the month appears to change its character as it goes on. The mean temperature of the month for Perth, in Scotland, at 43°; but, occasionally, winter reappears in all its fierceness.
1 In Scotland January 1st became New Year’s day in 1600. The legal year began in England on the 25th of March, till the change of style in 1752.