The sap is rising: the vibrant force of this noisy spring

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Rachel Carson (1956/1998) The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents & Children, HarperCollins: p. 100

Rachel Carson is – of course – more famous for summoning a sense of a silent spring. In her 1962 masterwork, The Silent Spring, Carson gave us the cautionary image of the cessation of the eternal return that should be spring’s noisy bursting back into life. And the agent of silencing was chemical – liquid death seeping into a vulnerable nature, suffocating and snuffing out life and its sounds. For Carson pesticides were invader substances, alien chemicals surging through innocent and vulnerable capillaries.

But a couple of events have got me thinking this week about how the springtime ‘springing to life’ is itself a product of surging, swelling, insistent chemicals.

Like everyone (I suspect) I’ve particularly noticed the spring this year. Maybe, like me you’ve yearned for it as a target point that will be the end of Lockdown 3, you’ve seen parks and countryside heaving with human bodies as the new agora. But whilst observing spring’s return more intently this year I’ve found it becoming more complex too. Those Easter cards with their cute bunnies and neat daffodils just don’t capture the sheer vibrant throb of life, and of its non-cuddliness. My failing to find cute comfort in the spring is partly wrapped up in the intensity of my watching it this year – those young birds are fighting, that bumble bee emerging from hibernation is struggling to adjust to its living – if it continues to deny the reality of the window pane it will soon be a dried up husk (a bit like that young toad lying like a strip of biltong on my patio). Spring is raw, vibrant but not cute.

There’s also the problem that spring, and my garden’s blossoming back to life, brings forth strong memories of this time last year – of spring 2020, warming air, flowers and the anxious uncertainties of ‘the first wave’. It also reminds me of a sunny lunchtime sitting outside in my yard, listening to the US President suggesting that I shoot up with disinfectant, or shine a really strong light into my body to kill off the nasty bugs. Contaminated with these memories, spring is more complicated now, it has lost its innocent connotations.

And so I find myself looking at spring differently. And I find myself thinking about the vibrant force of rising sap. Why? Well, let’s now unpack the two events that have led me to this.

Event one. I’m sat at my work desk earlier this week. I’m bleeding. Intentionally. I’m struggling to ‘milk’ my finger (as the instructional notes so delicately put it). I’m trying to bleed into a sample vial, so that I can complete a covid antibody test. My fingers are tacky with glutinous blood, but little of it wants to drip into the vial. I have to make repeated pin pricks. I wage war upon my fingers, with increasing desperation. I’m trying to harvest my own recalcitrant sap, in order that a lab can confirm to me that I have the right kind of human-made contamination within me, so that I can withstand the ambivalent life force of the covid virus were it to come upon me as a future host.

Event two. A random chain of events bring me to Nick Zinner’s 41 Strings (2014) performance piece, it’s a rock musician’s modern take on a ‘four seasons’ concerto. I listened to the ‘spring’ movement first via the YouTube recording of its live performance and it blew me away. The other three movements (the other three season pieces) are ok but counter intuitively it is ‘spring’ that has the noise, the force, the vibrancy. The ‘spring’ movement has a ascending motif woven through it – which to my mind wonderfully summons the force of sap rising. In contrast the ‘autumn’ movement (fitting titled ‘fall’ – in line with the US convention) has a descending motif. ‘Summer’ is pastoral and not driven like spring. Winter is somewhat frozen: this also not driven. But spring rocks, and has the surprisingly – but now-fitting seeming – violent edge to it.

Clearly there’s nothing new in seeing spring as a time of heady – and beyond our control and rational comprehension – life-force. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring culminates with a young maid dancing herself to death. Here the conjured Russian folk rites echo the Dionysus / Bacchus cults of ancient Greece and Rome. Euripides’ play The Bacchae depicts the frolicking of the god of fertility’s maidens – the maenads (in Greek – Bacchae in Roman) who – according to Plato ‘milk’ the environment – releasing its fecund liquids, thus:

“…the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. they strike rocks with the thyrsus [a vaguely phallic vine adorned stick], and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid…” (Otto, 1965, p.96)

In short, spring is wet, sticky and slightly out of control. It is also ‘many’ not ‘one’. Multiple rhythms – only somewhat and incidentally harmonious. This – for me – is all there in Zinner’s ‘spring’, watch the musicians – a loose, dense crowd (like a flower bed) all almost acting as a single entity but not quite, each struggling to be an individual component and make sense of what they are doing. Like saplings they jostling for space, light and moisture. And that jostling all the stranger to our current eyes because we’ve almost forgotten what densely packed crowds and/or group endeavours look like.

References and links:

Otto, Walter, F. (1965) Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press.

Mp3 recordings of each part of ’41 strings’ can be downloaded for free here:

And recordings of the performance of each of the four movements can be found on YouTube.

Image Reference:

Loxley Common, Sheffield: Luke Bennett, 2020.