From late January, snowdrops appear on the stage of Exmoor. They arrive so suddenly. Nature looks a muddy green on one day and, on the next, snowdrops are greeting the world. They can be found in hedgerows, fields, forests and gardens. They are nature’s surprise after several months of sleep and torpor. They are particularly welcome after harsh Exmoor winters. Their faithful appearance is part of the culture of Exmoor.
I cycle to a nearby valley, fed by the River Avill, for an annual treat. Clumps of snow drops in the hedgerows cannot prepare me for the breath-taking vision as I descend into a heavily-wooded valley. Carpets of snowdrops as far as the eye can see. They commune beside the river and run up the side of the hill. They look magnificent in large communities, but each plant is distinctive and beautifully formed. Like the human race, they need the support of each other to flourish.
Snowdrops are immigrants. They are refugees from the European mainland and Middle East and these islands are enriched by the blessings that they bring. Some say that they were introduced into this country by monks from Cistercian Abbeys in the twelfth century and were planted in this valley by monks from nearby Dunster in the thirteenth century. They came to be symbols of the Christian Festival of Candlemas, celebrated on 2nd February each year. The Festival is also known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Feast of Purification. These connections are reflected in the names given to the snowdrop in different countries. In France the snowdrop is called, ‘La violette de la chandaleur’ (the violet of candle-light) and in Italy, ‘il fiore della purificazione’ (the flower of the purification).
The Festival marks the occasion when, following local tradition, the new-born Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph to give thanks for his safe delivery. It was at this point that the priest Simeon recognised Jesus’ calling to be the hope and future of God’s people: fulfilling his calling would bring him and his mother pain as well as joy. The life-cycle of the snowdrop, arriving in the cold of winter and being battered by wind, rain, hail, frosts and snows, is a mixture of pain and joy.
The humble snowdrop has also inspired poets and musicians over the centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to it as ‘Thou timid Flower’: William Wordsworth sees the snowdrop as announcing that spring is about to come with the phrase ‘venturous harbinger of spring’. In their many days of walking together across Exmoor, did these local residents pass through this valley at this time? Were these snowdrops the inspiration for their poetry?
What is it about snowdrops that touch and draw so many, so deeply? They are, indeed, venturous harbingers of spring. They are venturous because these small ‘timid’ flowers are born survivors. They are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. They are struck down, but not destroyed. Their strength lays in their resilience, perseverance and community. Despite so many obstacles, they faithfully grow and grow.
Surrounded by the abundance of snowdrops in this beautiful valley, I can see that they are harbingers, announcing that spring is coming. But gazing on them and feeding on the scene before me, I know within that spring has already arrived.
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