Each year, at the start of March, a snatch of poetry runs through my head:
March, black ram,
Comes in like a lion,
Goes out like a lamb.
It appeared in a book which gathered stories, rhymes and snippets of seasonal lore about winter that I pored over annually as a child. I can’t find any reference to this version of the proverb now, so I suppose the ram of Aries was added purely to give the sentiment a rhyme and rhythm. It demonstrates the sticking power of poetry, though: the music of those lines caught in my mind forever.
I had a bookish, indoors childhood, despite my parents’ best efforts to exhort me out into the fresh air. A lot of the feelings I amassed about the natural world came from books and poems. It’s no substitute for the real thing, which utterly delights me now as I chivvy my own reluctant children – sorry, kids! – into the cold to exclaim over catkins, but it did build a store of natural knowledge. And for children who don’t have easy access to nature, it can be particularly valuable.
It turns out I (and now, my daughters) can identify a dog violet, thanks to Flower Fairies of the Spring. April cannot dawn without Browning’s ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’ coming to mind. I will always be unsettled by frog spawn, thanks to Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’. And every year, when my children complain about bright summer bedtimes, I find myself quoting Robert Louis Stevenson:
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
Again: sorry, kids.
Later in the year, Rachel Field’s autumnal ‘sagging orchards’ in ‘Something Told the Wild Geese’ come to mind, chased by Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Winter’: ‘once a snowflake fell / on my brow’ and Robert Frost’s traveller in snowy woods with ‘miles to go before I sleep’. Wordsworth, in ‘The Prelude’, captured the exhilaration of whirling about on ice-skates. It feels convincing even to me as a clumsy person, whose few attempts at skating (on suburban rinks resounding with Radio 1) resulted in falls eliciting audible gasps from onlookers and spectacular bruising.
It rarely snowed where I grew up. I was never ambushed by a rabble of farting frogs. I couldn’t see pedestrians’ feet from my bedroom. But poetry has helped me make imaginative leaps: in the treasure house of my mind, I’ve thrilled to a chaffinch in the April orchard, and sailed across frozen lakes under a wintry sky. These experiences were not ‘real’, but they live in me nonetheless and foster a sense of connection to the natural world. The reading can inspire the doing, too, and encourage children to seek experiences in the great outdoors.
The success of Allie Esiri’s seasonal anthologies – A Poem for Every Spring Day, and so on, and the beautiful anthologies edited by Fiona Walters – I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree and Tiger Tiger Burning Bright – show that I’m not alone in valuing poetry as a way in to nature for young readers. Gathering material for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I hoped the poems could inspire young champions for our planet and its wildlife, just as the museum’s collections aim to do. In a world where we’re ever more disconnected from natural rhythms, I do believe books and poetry can help to plug us back in.