Some years ago, I was being shown around the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. A colleague, and my guide for the day, an earnest sort, was extremely short sighted but reluctant to wear her glasses; as a consequence she had to lean in close to read the inscriptions that detailed the paintings, almost to the point where the tip of her nose would be touching the text as she peered in. More than once she attracted the ire of the fearsome attendants, anxious at her proximity to the art but, with that world weary Russian disdain for authority, she persisted nonetheless. She knew her stuff and, having been reassured that she was talking about the correct painting, was able to talk with considerable knowledge about her subject. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and we worked our way through a whirlwind tour of the history of Russian and Soviet art. She paused when we reached Savrasov’s The Rooks are Returning – “you need to be Russian to understand this one” she said, and moved on with no further explanation. I called her back – it’s a beautiful painting and, all of a sudden, I had been excluded from it. I was curious now, and wanted to know more. To no avail. She muttered something about the “Russian soul” and went off in search of the next masterpiece.
The painting came to mind this morning, as I walked past a solitary tree that was occupied by a couple of dozen noisy crows. Or rooks – I have never been entirely sure. Making the most of the wind, they were in a state of constant flux, taking off in pairs or small groups, at one point rising en masse, calling to each other as they wheeled round and returned to the tree. Was this behaviour some kind of rookish courting? The boisterous kerfuffle, and the warm sun that was making a mockery of my decision to wear a hat, seemed as good an indicator of the imminence of spring as anything else.
I wrote about this walk last year, a year to the day as it happens and, aside from the weather, not much has changed. The brambles may have been cleared back from the path, but the chain link fence is still there, albeit in a state of collapse. No sign of the shopping trolley though. Of course, this time last year we were under lockdown and the playing fields deserted – not so today; the groundsmen are busy and preparations are under way for this afternoon’s football matches. Corner flags flutter cheerfully in the wind as I walk on, south, towards Little Thetford and I am soon out of the town and quite alone. This was a new walk to me last year; it is now my favourite and a well trodden path. It mixes woodland with riverbank, open country with secluded footpaths, the variety keeping it fresh.
It isn’t just the crows that think spring is coming. The exceptionally mild weather has tricked all manner of trees and plants; buds that would normally still be dormant are swelling in anticipation – some even opening up, the lovely fresh green leaves an unfurling vanguard of the great rush that will soon follow. There is something cruel about this renewal. Every year the world gets to start again, a symbol of hope after the bleak winter months. But while our species also has this opportunity to wipe the slate clean and reinvent ourselves, we still just keep on getting older. So we are assailed by the blast of sights and sensations that both reinvigorate us, while simultaneously being reminded that another year has passed. Fortunately, today is just too glorious to be burdened by matters existential, and I march on towards the river.
The wind, gusting and blustery, is making a commotion – it’s too loud for me to hear the reeds whisper their song, so I watch them dance instead; their golden tresses gilded and illuminated by the sunlight as they perform, moving and swaying with a spellbinding freedom that I can only envy. And behind them, the rain-heavy river, saturated and full to the brim, entirely untroubled by the concerns of man, eases its way onwards across the Fens, to the north and to the sea.