The Order of Spring.

Each Spring I feel like I experience Spring for the first time. This sensation has been even more apparent in 2020 thanks to the attention I have been allowed to pay to the countryside over the past few weeks. It’s not that I am walking any more than usual, it’s that there is an exaggerated focus that has both helped me to pass through this time with my sanity, and brought me to a deeper and refreshed knowledge and understanding of the processes of Spring. Not to mention an abundance of creative inspiration. The following is an excerpt from a much longer, but as yet unfinished article, entitled “The Order Of Spring”.

Over the past few months I have made vague notes on “The Order Of Spring”, in words and in image. Since the first hazel catkins in January I was sure that this year, Spring was not going to sneak up on me.

Spring is not as immediate a thing as its name would suggest. That thing we call Spring, the verdant emergence, is only the climax of months of preparation. The first subtle preparations for that climax happen at the end of Summer and Autumn the previous year, with the growth of leaf buds that remain and develop on the tree throughout the dark months.

Many trees respond to the switching of the light at Solstice, so I’ll pick up the trail in December, as the slight increase in daylight taps on the first doors of Spring. I kept a sparse diary week-by-week, listing the appearance of hazel catkins in January, the tufts of leaves displayed by the elders in December, the depth of the sleep of all except the evergreens. As the weeks went on, I noted and mapped the native tree’s advance towards their Spring climax. Now, in mid May, with the help of recent rain, the trees are in full leaf. All except a few, the stragglers of Spring.

Ash trees are known as late leafers, they are also eager to lose their leaves in Autumn, making them one of the shortest leaf displays of our native trees. In Spring, they bring up the rear and usher in all other trees ahead of them, with some ash lingering until May to release full foliage. In autumn, they lead the way and are first to release their foliage, often without changing colour.

That said, a number of ash trees release leaves earlier in April, along with floral displays. In fact, unfoldment of the entire population of ash has a gradual and extended time line, over weeks, unlike, for example, the beech. Another late leafer, she waits for only the brightest Spring days, allowing only a few leaves to extend, as if testing the air. The beech at this stage looks like Spring swept past it, touching it slightly on its outer branches as it moved by. Within a week or two all the beech trees can have a full crown of foliage and at present all except one beech in the locality have their leaves.

The earliest of all starters is a tree who barely takes a winter break. Elders display tufts of fresh leaves from slightly open buds from as early as December. Elder is the canary in the coal mine, or Spring pioneer, holding out leaves to sense the changing light at Solstice. As soon as the elder senses a change it starts putting in growth to its young shoots.

Sycamore, a non-native, is another tree who is late to the party, but it’s only the elderly trees, the ones with pink flaky bark, that still stand bare on the horizon. The sycamore elders seem to hang on and allow the younger trees and saplings to produce leaves much earlier and much larger. I imagine the old sycamore’s tendency to delay its leaf growth is to allow its offspring to gain some valuable spring light, while it gets on with flower production. It’s easy to see why these trees are not favoured, their large palmate leaves block out the light for most other shrubs and saplings.

The catkined trees, betulaceae, have been busy since mid winter producing their flowers. Their pollination is complete before a lot of trees are even stirring. Hazel pollinates its tiny pink female flowers in January, but puts fertilisation on hold, as it goes about uncurling its spongy leaves. It’s not until later in Summer that the flowers will fertilIse and start to turn to hazel nuts.

I have seen hornbeam trees produce leaves and catkins in February, while their neighbours sit without leaves until mid March. Hornbeam’s first leaves are light and airy and their wispy end branches allow them to dance in the light and breeze in a delightful way. Hornbeam’s early leaves are soft, light green and ridged with defined veins leading to a serrated outer edge, their structure catches the sun like Venetian blinds.

Each tree has its own process and processes within processes, that stop and start, weave and monitor, press on and wait for their environment, perhaps even wait for one another. Certainly within species there is some evidence of communicated coordination with regards to flower production, release, and an agreement on a good year to mast.

I wonder how much trees consider other trees while they are producing leaves and flowers. What could be the reason that one ash tree in a stand would not leaf until much later in May, while it’s neighbours were in leaf in April? The answer to that will require further hours of observation, each time Spring happens.

I am forever and endlessly occupied by the trees, each one’s unique response to the changing cycles and environment, and each tree contributing to a meta process, climaxing in the bit that we perceive as “the darling buds of May”, the explosion of Verdance in the Spring months that leads us onward towards the Summer Solstice.

Spring is in fact a deep, gradual process. The intricacies of this process are too vast to put down, and as always, the more one observes, the more one finds. Walking in and observing this process with regularity becomes a doorway to knowledge, not in a formal learning sense, but knowledge of a particular place and time, the unique structure of a space, the micro systems and relationships, and ones relationship to that.

This knowledge is not for words, it is memory, insight, metaphor, it is location, direct experience, it is knowledge of home. The trees, and indeed all life, is the universe’s visual, real life response to the never ending cycles of night and day, and all thanks to the sun’s mass, light and that slight tilt on the Earth’s axis.

There’s an inner understanding here that’s difficult to put into words, suffice to say, for all of the observation, it still seems that each Spring I see Spring for the first time.

Matt Witt 07/05/2020


The Bonsai Oak at the Foot of The Tor.

On the embankments opposite each oak have sprung up a handful of beautiful little oak saplings. This one seems to have been there for some time and has been nibbled repeatedly, but survived to regrow new shoots and develop a young canopy, its main trunk must be two years, at least.

On closer inspection, some of the oaks I found had tiny caverns dug out beneath them, little chests where the squirrels store their nuts. I hear that squirrels often leave nuts in the ground, either forgetting them, or maybe leaving them as a distraction from their main store.

I like to think that the squirrels allow one of their acorns to grow, keeping it small, maintained and discreet, to mark the spot where they bury their stash. Or perhaps they are just keen bonsai practitioners!

The following two minute tree walk highlights three of the trees, including our tree of the month.


Two Minute Tree Walks

Welcome to “Two Minute Tree Walks”, a weekly window to the trees of Avalon. This fourth edition introduces the bonsai woodland developing at the foot of the Tor.


Tree Identification

Leaves, blossoms and the conspicuous silohoutte of a large tree in the hedgerow. Send your answers, clockwise from top left, to matt@tothetrees.co.uk.

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Support Matt by listening, buying and sharing his music.

To The Trees E.P. – Matt’s songs, often played on the tree walks, recorded for your enjoyment. With cover art from tree walker Andrea Laker. Includes a Prayer for Avalon.

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Matt Witt

Author Matt Witt

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