‘O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing’
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red …’
Last weekend I stood silently on the crest of a hill surveying the sun setting into a mist, while buffeted by the wildest west wind I can remember. Below me, the red berries shivered on the hawthorn trees huddling down the hillside and almost stripped bare, except for them. I thought back to images seen on television of ice flows descending from the North Pole in ages past to carve out the narrow valley below me.
The gently curving hilltop fields are already ploughed and raked, flecked white with fragments of chalk and ready to be seeded with winter wheat. Pheasants squawk when their solitary banquet is disturbed. There are no streams in the Yorkshire vales because chalk absorbs water like blotting paper. For many centuries flocks of sheep grazed these valleys formed by ice retreating back towards the North Pole. Grass was plentiful and their fleeces were prized throughout Christendom. Monastic foundations in Yorkshire valleys at Rievaulx and Jervaulx grew rich exporting them to provide the best wool for quality cloth manufactured in Florence and Siena and towns further south, like Assisi, in the hills above the Tiber valley and the road to Rome. Saint Francis’s father was a cloth merchant. He was away at the important Champagne fairs in the centre of France when his son was born. Appropriately, he was the first child to be called Francis. These merchants from Tuscany met others from Yorkshire, often representing the rich and powerful monastic orders trading wool from sheep grazing hillsides and valleys like this narrow ice age one with hawthorn trees, hanging on this side and dotted all over the other, red berried in Autumn and smothered in white blossom in Spring.
The air was strangely warm; 24 degrees centigrade, a summer temperature here. This ‘wild spirit’ of the west wind is a ‘destroyer and preserver’ until ’thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow’. Shelley knew that the blusters of the ‘wild west wind’ heralding a bleak winter were also blowing ‘the winged seeds’ over the land to lie low in winter, waiting for spring. A message of hope, but I still dread the moment when the clocks are turned back and the afternoon suddenly draws in to deprive itself of light until, slowly, the days draw out in January and the snowdrops peep through the grass.
Christmas and my birthday fall in the two darkest weeks with the shortest days in the northern hemisphere. The nearer you are to the equator, the less difference there is between dawn and dusk throughout the year. When I travelled in Ecuador and stood, literally, right on the equator, I asked people about this. They don’t have, it seems, marked changes in season or times of day like us in the north. I would miss these changes as they carry me on a seasonal voyage in time, a tapestry of colours and shapes changing throughout the year, always remembering how Shelley’s poem ends:
‘The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’