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Fern uncoiling

(Photograph) - Photograph by Gary Braasch

"Spring," said e e cummings, American poet of the 1920s, "is like a perhaps hand in a window."

Slowly, stealthily unfolding the buds of new life, the hand of spring comes "carefully out of NowhereI moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing an inch of air there", or, as in this picture, uncoiling itself in the miniature frondlets of a fern.

Spring, of course, doesn't have a hand; it is a process caused by the tilting of the earth on its axis, producing the seasons. Near the equator, the cloud forests of Costa Rica, where this picture was taken, enjoy only a drenching rainy season and an arid dry season: it is either spring growth or autumnal decay.

Yet so powerful is the experience of spring to people who have been cooped up all winter watching grey day succeed grey day, that poets have frequently personified spring.

After dormancy, seeds germinate and buds unfurl under the influence of warmer temperatures and longer days. So, ping! There are the snowdrops. All very botanically fascinating, but does spring belong more to botanists or poets? Can we know more about the immense tension coiled in the tree fern's croziers or fiddleheads (as these baby fronds are called) by consulting our plant dictionary or by immersing ourselves in Dylan Thomas's eulogy to "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower"?

We all know, with Shakespeare, that "sweet lovers love the spring" - perhaps particularly true in the 16th century. Warmer weather then meant not just more light and flowers but also the chance for couples to get out of smoky houses packed with osy families and off to a little privacy on the green hillsides.

So, in the first spring of the First World War, Julian Grenfell wrote of "the naked earth warm with spring", but his rustic spring had a twist. Instead of celebrating young love, Grenfell, in a patriotic poem published in the Times, linked the intensity of spring to the soldier's exultation in life in the face of death, even calling readiness to fight and die, "new birth". (Well, he was writing very early in the war, and he was very young.) So, is spring a season of birth or death? "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed," wrote the American poet Walt Whitman in his 1881 elegy for a dead friend, "And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night, I mourned and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."

The very newness of life can sharpen feelings of ageing and loss: as T S Eliot wrote, "April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land."

More than 800 kinds of ferns, including the one pictured here, sprout in the Monteverde uplands of Costa Rica. Though a small country, comparable in size to Denmark, it contains about 5 per cent of all known flora and fauna - about half a million plant and animal species. In the cloud forest, growth is strongest at the beginning of the rainy season, in May. Tree ferns that botanists think thrived at the time of the dinosaurs uncurl their fronds with a flourish. All around life is always just beginning.

Victoria Neumark

Weblinks and books: Oxford Book of English Verse

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