First Things

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You hear the long, quavering call of a blackbird and open the window, stiff after the swelling snow. The song slips inside, spins and swirls for a few moments, and then steals you from the room. Standing outside, warmth lilts about your fingers and face for the first time in months. You sense the sap rising to the apple buds, the stars of white blossom on the cusp of erupting.

A lizard skitters madly along the wall, darting over the stones as if they were coals. Crocuses purple the dark earth and water runs as if in a race, unlocked from snow and ice to stream down the mountains and pour as a river into the lake. Tree sparrows fumble in the branches of the quince, shuttling old leaves and grasses, sometimes shiny candy wrappers dropped by kids, to furnish a nest in a stone cranny of the house. Pale green shoots are spearing through the ground. You look down to see you’re standing on a new season.

Brimstone, tortoiseshell, Queen of Spain fritillary: the names of butterflies on the tip of your tongue, forgotten there all winter like the handsaw you set down and didn’t find until the shrinking snow returned it, wet and rusted on the grass. But seeing those first flights – the early and uncertain flutters of amber, lemon and orange wings glinting in the sharp sun – and a whole language falls into place, a homecoming book left dusty on a shelf. You turn the pages of returning things, feel the shape of their names in your mouth. Swallowtail, wheatear, nightingale. You let them linger on your lips, trembling and ready to fly.

The first things of spring are ancient and repeated, and yet somehow uniquely new. No matter how many springs have preceded it, the season always feels like it’s arriving for the first time. There’s a quality of the ecstatic to it all, like the spell of first love wild and requited. But a first love that’s recurring. All that appears shares the mystery of being simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar, the paradox of a circle that turns, bringing the same season back to us after a lengthy absence. The same season seen differently. You feel the sun that’s unfurling the world and know it could be the first you’ve ever felt. You hear the long, quavering call of the blackbird and let its song slip inside.

40 thoughts on “First Things

  1. like the moment of seeing the first spring butterfly,like the way you see, like the way you write

  2. Ah, Hoff! My favourite narrator of the seasons’ progress…

    Spring arrived also in Strathclyde this past weekend; I was up a ladder looking over the city sprawled between Cathkin Braes to the south and the Campsie Fells to the north. The sun was warm enough to burn my nape a little while I was simultaneously pummelled by hailstones…

    Seems like ages.

    1. Thanks, Pete! I’m embracing spring even more than usual this year after having had our water pipes frozen for the best part of a month and a half, so I can well imagine that Scottish seesaw between sun and hail! Hope all is well with you both, my friend. By the way, any chance you might be down south in the middle of June?

  3. Julian–

    Lovely, lovely post. That word “ecstatic” is just right. (I always feel a bit crazy-with-gratitude this time of year, anyway). And I love how the names of things are poems in and of themselves.

    Happy warming!

    1. Thank you, Emily. Always an honour to hear that the words have reached you in some way. I might just borrow your “crazy-with-gratitude” phrase to describe my feelings right now! Enjoy your own emergent warmth and wonder…


  4. It seems to be “springing” a bit early for us in the US. The dogwood festival next month won’t have any dogwoods in bloom left after they’ve all exploded this week! Not that I’m complaining!

    It’s very hard to be glum this time of year, isn’t it?

    1. Yes, so I’ve been reading! The seasons are all over the place these days, and I fear it’s a sign of things to come. At this rate you’ll be celebrating the dogwood festival some time around the winter solstice in the years to come…

      Hope all is well with you though, and that you’re enjoying the small beauties of the season!

  5. The way you put words together! The sensory dance.

    I will hear your narrative – bird song slipping inside, – as the sun steals me from the room, and I find myself “standing on a new season”. A season which is still to come here, but with teasing hints in the height of the sun and compaction of the snow; one I am assured will come soon; one I feel I’ve now had a sweet taste of, listening to your lyrics.

    Thank you for bringing me this meditation as I now start my day with a calm, hopeful and healing feeling in my heart.

    1. Thank you, Cindy. It’s always such a pleasure to read your comments, and an honour. Delighted the post reached you this way, and I’m sure your own first things will shortly be on their way. Hope you enjoy all its varied delights!

    NIKOS PAPPAS (1906-1997)
    Bεcause of this poetry which like the Gospel
    οpens its pages and our hearts,
    which impels us to walk with open shirt
    a little before the firing squads execute us;
    because of this poetry which make us brothers
    with the Americans, the Slavs, and the Yellow Race
    in that hour when the merchants howl
    because they have not sold their cargoes of death
    and the newspapers shriek with murderous headlines;
    because of this poetry, sister, that with a tender hand
    covers the sailor, the exile, the emigrant, the imprisoned,
    and without our asking opens
    a door toward green landscapes
    without coffins or invalids or wars;
    because of this poetry which in one embrace
    unites Hell and Paradise together
    and cools all sorrows and sighs in passing
    and knocks on the most incompassionate doors
    in that hour when we thought everything had been lost;
    because of the poetry which, fragrant and feathery,
    sits by the bitter sea of separation
    and lurches on the ship’s deck
    dressed in colors of woman and home;
    because of this poetry which the soldier holds in his heart
    as he reclines on the rock of Korea
    murmuring on of Tsitsanis’s popular ballads
    with 20 degrees below zero in his soul,
    which the student in despair bites like bread
    tonight when he has neither a date nor a dollar;
    because of the poetry which Mayakovsky
    and Whitman crunch in their teeth,
    which armies carry and duffel bags on their campaigns
    and high-school students on their excursions,
    with which we sleep every night arm in arm
    blissfully happy in our poor attic
    with a distant “goodnight”
    from unknown girls over the radio:
    because of this poetry which does not fit into fixed patterns
    and refuses to deal in rhymes and quatrains,
    which with its typhoons uproots
    the Bastilles and the hard hearts of rulers,
    which fondles and hair of nations
    with a hand of motherly tenderness
    and has a voice more powerful that the roar of explosions
    eyes more luminous than promises
    and hands as clean as the deeds of apostles;
    because of this poetry which bears
    the wings of sparrows, of doves, of condors,
    and in its beak carries its message
    to poetry workers, to fishermen, to shepherds, to coal miners
    either with twitterings or with iron wings;
    because of this poetry which whistles like a great wind
    in the funnels of battleships
    and in windows of palaces,
    and like a breeze refreshes all sweating brows
    and is like a huge bridge uniting
    this blackest of all lives
    with that other one now dawning;
    because of this poetry which in our blood
    leaps like a fawn or like madness
    and talks with you. O village lad,
    who for three dollars war with your brother;
    because of this poetry which caresses and converses
    with Jip and with Mustafa and with Sergei,
    which will not permit poets to beg
    and scatters drops of coolness
    above the wastelands left by explosions;
    because of this poetry which keeps awake
    and Forrestals and Oppenheimers and me
    that I may erect bayonets for them with my verses
    among my manuscripts under my lamp;
    because of this poetry which separates us
    even from those who have given us birth
    and has nailed a red flower on our breast
    like a knife-thrust;
    because of this poetry for which boys and girls
    filled with dreams took up their guns
    and over our planet spread a thick shadow of kindness
    we keep our heads held high
    and men recognize us because of our clean glances
    amid this menacing darkness spread
    by progress and the Middle Ages
    by your poetry and the multiple dollar
    until all legends lose their color
    until all men in the meadows are devastated
    by great mathematicians and the great scientists
    bleat and moo, bleat and moo like sheep and cow…

    Something for the poetry day…Your posting sounds quite poeting!

  7. What a beautifully evocative ode to spring – which has blossomed into fullness here in North Carolina. Your naming spring as both ancient and uniquely new describes our spring so well. Could the dogwoods ever have been so snowy white, hanging like clouds beneath the taller tree branches? Could the wild hyacinth ever have been such delicious purple curtains that cover their supporting pines? Of course, and of course not. Spring, a season for living in both present and past, and reveling in both.

    1. Janet, thanks for this beautiful comment, full of the colour and new sheen of spring. “…a season for living in both present and past, and revelling in both.” Wonderful and inspriring words. Thanks for adding them to the list of first things. Much appreciated; enjoy the North Carolina blossoming!

  8. Came over to your blog from Heart to Harp … she was so right, your description of spring is beautifully evocative.

  9. Julian, I’ve been working nonstop on relaunching my business and had been shortening my walks through the woods, immersing in pedantic technical and business information, letting this kind of writing move to the outer edges of my time. I finally took a break to sink into this essay that has been waiting quietly in my inbox, knowing that when I did my immediate world would be warmed by the old perfect light. And so it was — to the point that I was moved to tears, in the same way that Wordsworth’s “Intimations” moves me. It feels trite to say your writing is exquisite when what it does for me goes far beyond craftsmanship. It’s ministerial. The way you epitomize vast ideas in minute images and moments reminds me of the integrity of the universe and the essence of life. Even without your beautiful photographs, I see exactly what you mean, and am reminded of those same little underfoot glimmers in my own walks. “Standing on a new season” and “turn the pages of returning things” — how perfect. Thank you for this intensely beautiful reminder of what matters. I feel restored!

    1. And thank you, Jenny, for this humbling comment. I’m so sorry it’s taken me this long to get back to you, but I suppose I’d been trying to think of words equal to yours to express my appreciation. In the end, I can only say thanks with my deepest gratitude.

      Best wishes,


      1. No worries, Julian — I only comment on a blog when the spirit moves me (which happens to be with every post on YOUR blog), and you shouldn’t feel obligated to do otherwise yourself! Besides it’s going to become impossible soon due to your ever-growing number of fans! I’ll be quite happy to say “he wrote to me back in the day, when he was an emerging household name” :D

  10. Exquisite as always..We wander the spring backwoods together in fact. Here the Himalayan forests glisten with the sights and sounds of spring…The Grey winged blackbird is the love of my life at the moment, sitting at the uppermost tip of the tallest Himalayan Cedar singing its heart out; a joyously melancholic lilt competing with the cacophony of Great barbets and Plum- headed Parakeets..

    1. Thanks, Sid. Always a joy to hear what you’re experiencing in those high, snow-shrouded hills. I recall the azure-winged magpie outside my window, and a great barbet at the top of a pine. Gorgeous, and everything new and thrilling to me. Everything beckoning. Take care, my friend.

      love J.

  11. Julian, Lovely photos with just the right words.

    I let your blog fall off my radar, as it wasn’t coming into my in-box. I’ve now subscribed via email, so I won’t miss any future posts …

    No butterflies yet here, but that’s good coz there’s no flowers yet …

    1. Thanks kindly, Sybil, and for subscribing! My posts are fairly irregular affairs, only once or twice a month, but I’m delighted to hear that they’ll be appearing in your in-box. Glad you liked this one, and hope all is well on the coast!

      Best wishes,


  12. Butterflies and birds…Boyfriend and I went to the beach yesterday, and both were in attendance and in abundance.

    I love the silhouette of the butterfly – it glows like a cathedral window.

    1. And I love the “cathedral window” and the joys of “attendance and abundance.” Beautiful words to edge me into your own spring world, Aubrey. Thank you…

  13. I loved the photos in this post! I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog…I had so much fun browsing and checking out your old post. You have gained another faithful reader.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Shoeless! It was a great pleasure to read your comment this morning and know that the words and images had resonated with you. I deeply appreciate that you’ll be following along; and I’m delighted as well that you stumbled upon the blog!

      My best wishes,

  14. I’m so behind on my reading, but I’m really glad that I finally managed to sit down and enjoy this properly. You have this uncanny knack, Julian, of encapsuating exactly how I feel about the world around me in words I can never quite reach. You’ve captured the feeling of spring perfectly in this. Beautiful and evocative as always.

    1. Not only am I behind on my reading, Heather, but I appear to be terribly behind in my replies as well! Forgive me, but your comment is extremely touching and I’m deeply pleased that similiar things are resonating with us in our very different worlds. It’s a joy to discover your take on the natural word, so it’s doubly pleasing to read your generous compliments about my own. Hope all is well with you around the lake…

      Best wishes,

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