Spring in Basel before the big bloom
The countryside around Basel has a lot to offer, even when winter is in its final throes.
During the first week of March I saw my first honeybee of the New Year. This was the final sign, that day, that the wheels of spring were slowly getting into gear. This solitary and hopeful honey-making forager will not be seeking out the meagre offerings of our earliest flowering trees, like the blackthorn, when spring finally explodes. It will instead be dancing from plant to plant, with too many flowers from which to choose.
I was out taking a walk in the hills near Arlesheim, a stone’s throw away from Basel-Stadt, and an area of walks maintained and intended for all abilities – from young families to lively dogs and their owners to the most dedicated ramblers. At this time of year, on the end of winter, you must move slowly, and at times stand still if you want to see anything special, because the emergence of nature is still painfully shy – the fecundity of late spring and early summer is yet to come.
By now I am up on a small plateau above Arlesheim at a spot called Schönmatt where the cherry tree orchards are planted, and where, if you go in a few weeks or so when they bloom, you’ll be in for a treat. This spectacle is called locally the Bluescht, and is nature’s own little Fasnacht, shaking off the winter and singing in the spring. The singing in of times of plenty is for now provided by a small choir of early-season birds, rag-tag and buffeted by winter. But even the bashful chaffinch, reticent for much of the year, is here tuning up, plumped and plumaged and purposeful.
At this time of year the wildlife is still as elusive as the plant life. The grey towering beech trees were still sleeping alongside their bedfellows the hornbeam, ash, rowan, European alder, silver birch and plenty of others. The half-sleepy redwood, larch, Scots and Arolla pine lay across the valley in a coniferous stronghold on a hillside, enveloped in their own sort of birdsong – siskins and lesser redpolls, fidgety and restless and practising their notes before migrating north for the summer.
William Carlos Williams described in a poem about this time of year a
‘waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen’.
Perhaps this is why the few symbols of spring you see and hear are so rewarding. Surrounded by the aftermath of winter, they represent the emergent frontrunners of spring. And of the winged frontrunners I heard more than I saw. Tree pipits warbled syrupy preludes to the tinkling and twittering of the citril finch, as in a singing a duet. Where the forest gave out to meadowland and apple orchards the flute-like melodies of the blackcap whistling amongst leafless shrubs could be heard loud and clear. High above a Honey-Buzzard beat its wings deeply and then soared mutely, surveying the fields beneath for mice and voles and bigger prey. Blackbirds and a song thrush perched at the top of a tree provided the main chorus with a thrilling range of rich flute (more golden than the blackcap) and musical song.
And the honey buzzard and the optimistic honeybee started me thinking about honey and honeymead, one of the oldest wines in this region and throughout other parts of Europe. I had packed a small bottle of it with my picnic. Honeymead is the reason why honeymoon is called honeymoon in fact. In days of yore a newly married couple was provided with enough honey mead to drink a glass every night for a lunar month – oiling the wheels so to speak and relaxing nervous newlyweds. Rather like the wheels of spring turning all around us, these ones oiled by the sun and the warming earth and, some say, turned by Pan himself.
The late winter and very early spring flowers on the meadow and forest edges and the path sides also deserve a mention. The sarcococca, which is always smelled before it is seen is one of nature’s aphrodisiacs. The complex pink of the shrub-flowers of the viburnum bodnantense contrasts with the primary yellows of the scentless cornus mas. And everywhere there are catkins hanging from the trees – some bright yellow, others dun, but always the first flowers to be seen, emerging before the leaves even. And of the many other flowers yet to come, there are young shoots and leaves on the ground to show where they will be.
The leaves to look out for right now are those of the wild, or bear, garlic. Just follow your nose and you’ll find this prolific plant in the woodlands here, and in the very early spring before they flower, the young leaves are at their best. A million websites will teach you how to identify them and how to use them in recipes. Another item from nature’s larder right here on the edge of winter.
By the time you head up to see the Bluescht, the scene I describe here will be an explosion of life. By then the hardy individuals of early March will be part of a million other players, in the symphony of summer.