May 22, 2012

Russian Spring - this time it's for real

I’ve heard that our eyes can recognize more shades of green than any other colour. It might not be true, but in Spring it certainly feels that way. Trees, bushes, shrubs and grass have had to wait a long time for the sun to release them from their icy prison, which had locked them up since October, but with 18 hours of sunlight a day they’re quickly making up for lost time.

It is hard to believe that 2 weeks ago the lake was frozen, the trees were mere skeletons and the city was a grey and quite depressing place. Fittingly, the lake broke free of ice on the 9th of May - Victory Day (when WWII is commemorated), and the world exploded back to life.

When I imagined the Northern forests I always imagined them to be dark, spooky places populated by evergreen pine trees which block out the light. In fact, at this latitude the pines are delightfully interspersed with tall silver birch, whose vivid bright green leaves combine with the dark pine needles to create a beautiful patchwork effect. The pines themselves might be evergreen, but that doesn’t stop them making the most of the spring sunshine to grow new, brighter needles, adding another hue to the forest palette. The trees mostly have long, naked trunks opening out into small canopies at the top, allowing sunlight to fall in shafts of golden light, illuminating and invigorating the grass, shrubs and flowers on the forest floor.

As the sun paints the woody world, adding new hues and colours with every passing day, the birds fill it with sound. Looking up to find the source of a new song, I’ve often been amazed to see that it comes from the tiniest of birds as it flutters from branch to branch. Woodpeckers provide a percussive accompaniment, while the breeze rustles the delicate new leaves and occasionally causes the trees to creak as they rub against each other. It’s nature’s orchestra, in perfect harmony.

The city itself, despite the efforts of Soviet (and contemporary) architects, cannot resist the tide of natural beauty which is sweeping Northwards as spring takes hold. Trees now obscure much of the bare bricks, faded paintwork and crumbling walls, while the bright sun does its best to pick out what shades of paint remain and to show the buildings in their best light. The road sides, where snow drifts had lain for so long, get greener by the day, flowers are growing in the parks and the river, undeterred by a fortnight of almost unbroken sunshine, gushes by, carrying away what remains of the snowmelt into the vast watery expanse of Lake Onega.

The lake too has a life of its own. During the daytime, it often shows its deep blue face, wrinkled by waves stirred up by the strong breeze. In calmer spots, nearer the shore, it takes on a lighter blue, across which dark blue shadows fizz, tracking the wind as it gusts over the surface. At dusk, which begins about half past nine and lasts at least two hours, the wind usually drops and the lake takes on a glassy form, perfect for reflecting the oranges, reds, pinks, yellows and whites of the slow northern sunset. Once the sun has gone the orange glow remains for a long time, both in the sky and on the lake. Even later, after midnight, when the sky is almost dark, the lake refuses to sleep. In contrast to the land, cast in shadow, and the sky above, the lake itself seems to shine in a milky white, as if it is the cause, and not the effect, of the famous “white nights”.

You have to wait a long time for Spring to come to the North. But good things come to those who wait. 

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