The cuckoo and the swallows arrived in Kiltumper in the last week of April. We had been waiting for them, those cheery harbingers of summer, with the kind of expectation that one holds for much-loved guests. For weeks we listened to the skies, asking our neighbours, ‘have you heard the cuckoo?’ While out in the garden we watched the skies for the swallows. The anticipation of their flight promising, surer than anything, that summer was on their wings. When the cuckoo did finally arrive, he circumnavigated the townland, calling down to Mary Breen’s and then across Downes’ farm. He flew above the fairy fort at Behan’s, then back across Hehir’s forest, past our cottage garden, and settled somewhere near Coughlan’s bog. Summer had justly arrived. The same day, the 26th of April, the barn swallows returned to our cabin and boldly resumed their flight patterns in a fashion that suggested a fundamental faith in the great, grand design. From the top of the rafters, where they are rebuilding their nests, diving down through the opening of the stone-framed passageway they flew out into the garden like travellers returned from a long journey. Their swooping flight would cheer an aching heart. Each time I walk into the cabin to find some garden tool they startle and leave their perches, thrilling me as they daringly dart past. I find myself wondering what our African counterpart looks like, what their winter home is like, and what they think of Kiltumper.
A red-orange poppy, bright as an African sora, has opened above a sea of green in the flower bed in front of the house, shocking everything else in sight like some electrifying force and clashing with the red tulips in a minor collision of colour. Like the first call of a cuckoo and the first sight of a swallow, the first pop of a poppy breathes new life into me because it means some summer-like weather is around the corner and, like the poppy shedding its shell, I can de-cloak. Meanwhile, the Japanese cherry is festooned with layers of blossoms much like the soft bustle gowns in the painting ‘Women in the Garden’ by Claude Monet, with petals billowing in the May wind. The colour blue zigzags its way across the border with the tiny belled flowers of Jacob’s ladder, forget-me-nots and aquilegia, pansies and bluebells. The swelling of greenness bursting into leaf is, thankfully, unrelenting this time of year making the boxwood hedge neon green with its new growth--rapidly in need of clipping before the month is out. Above the boxwood knot garden sits the small glasshouse. Planted with tomatoes and cucumbers, lettuces and carrots, and early strawberries, it becomes the favourite place for our cat, Neidin, who relaxes on the warm soil. She winks at me with lazy eyes as I pot on the delphiniums and dahlias that I’ve been protecting from the slugs. Do I dare to plant them out?
I love this time of year maybe more than any other. The energy in the garden is steady and determined and nearly every day there is some new marvel to notice. Likewise, I the gardener am steady and determined, but trying to keep pace with the tireless blitz of growth can be a challenge. I have to stop myself and sit down to enjoy it. I should be taking a note from Neidin’s diary--‘today I lounged inside in yer one’s warm glasshouse, closed my eyes and soil-bathed until dinnertime’--or whatever it is that cats think about when they’re not hunting. The garden tasks are as plentiful as the harvest they bestow, however, and although I have elected the Husband as Chief Groundsman I am largely responsible for the garden’s upkeep. To give him his due, the Husband graciously accepts the chores I assign him—hedging mowing, transplanting, barrowing—the kind of jobs where I know his mind is still half in the book he is writing.
In Kevin Danaher’s wonderful book, The Year in Ireland, he writes about Bealtaine and the many May-day and May-time beliefs and customs. I didn’t know this, but seemingly May is the time of year when women gathered the May dew, believing in its virtues as a medicine and beauty aid--“Bringing immunity from freckles, sunburn, chapping and wrinkles during the coming year.” It also cured, or prevented, headaches, skin ailments and sore eyes.” What you do is: in the early morning go to the meadow and knock the dew off the grass with your hands. Collect it in a jar or a plate. Let it rest in the sunbeams and once the dregs have settled pour off the good stuff until you have clear but whitish dew. Danaher says to walk barefoot in the dew will cure all sorts foot ailments. Better still, if you’re daring, roll naked into the morning meadow and be assured of good health and a fair complexion for the coming year.
Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that working in the garden is being in the garden and being in the garden is enjoying the garden. Something akin to understanding that the journey is the destination, or as the American singer/songwriter Harry Chapin sang, ‘it’s the going, not the getting there, that’s good.’ So out I go. May in the Kiltumper garden will see us harvesting lettuces and scallions and rocket and spinach, and bringing in bouquets of blue flowers. And before the month is out, who knows, the swallows and the cuckoo that arrived from Africa just might see two naked humans out rolling and bathing in the morning dew of a Kiltumper meadow.