So I met Jean-Paul in the hardware store, looking his usual cheerful, chubby self so, like a fool, I ventured to ask if he was pleased with the gentle rain that has fallen since the frost. Never, ever ask a country man if he is happy with the present weather. The answer will be long.
Jean-Paul's grumble was difficult to interpret as he mostly speaks patois, in this case 'occitan' and mumbles. I gathered that the weather was now too soft, the vegetation was too advanced; I was instructed to look at the hazel bushes. Well, I have duly looked at the hazels and, yes, the catkins are hanging bedraggled from the twigs when they should not really have appeared until February...which is the week after next. More importantly, at the end of each twig there is a minute leaf bud, glossy brown and sharp as a spear point. The willow catkins are still waiting. What happens, he asked, if another frost comes?
This is a rhetorical country question that runs and runs all spring through, sometimes even during early summer, though hard rain is then substituted for frost, until the fruits are there. Even then rot and mildew threatens or, in the case of hard fruits such as hazel nuts, squirrels and other nut-cracking animals. Last year we did not get any hazel nuts from the various bushes scattered around. Our own fault because we always leave it too late to harvest them, a squirrel's definition of ripeness seems to be in advance that of a human.
Another sign of early spring is that the worms and the moles are already taking advantage of the softness of the soil to do their work. Worm casts are less visible than mole hills and fortunately it is not grass mowing time so gardeners have no reason to curse about the blade blunting effects of either. I am quite happy to see mole hills as the soil supplied is just right for potting bulbs which I have bought for my indoor bowls, much less effort to collect than soil and cheaper than commercial compost. I might even change my window boxes, the pansies are looking a little sad, though I have not consciously seen any commercial primulas yet.
My own personal sign of an earlier than usual spring is the clump of very small wild daffodils near the ruined bread oven. The leaves are about 20 cms high and there two small, rather battered yellow buds. The daffodils have come up in the same place as always. Normally I do not see them until March. Obviously daffodils are one of the few flowers not attractive to sheep - animals usually quite undiscriminating about flowers. They will not eat daisies or dandelions but they are very partial to all forms of wild orchid. So am I. Every year it is the same race between us: will I get there before they have eaten the orchids?