Vernal Equinox

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Our Best American Essays

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23.4 degrees

Here is the equal night again, so different from that of autumn, which comes dressed in summer.  In fact, the first day of spring comes to Maine in high winter drag.  Often it comes dressed in snow, thick and wet, mixed with rain.

For me in March most of the pleasure in watching snow accumulate has fled.  I decline to shovel the driveway, thinking, Snow’ll be gone soon enough, and pay for that when the slush left over freezes in deep ridges that last weeks in a cold snap.  I consider the skis—but the snow is so wet and heavy, and I’ve been thinking about my bicycle, my hiking boots.  Soon enough.

But, of course, it’s not soon enough.  It’s weeks, sometimes, in grinding cycles of melt and freeze, and melt and freeze again.  And again.  Time never moves so slowly as in the transition from winter to spring in Maine.  By March the mind’s night has got very long, and I have gotten used to it, gotten cozy alone in there, in my thoughts.  Winter is painful at times, but comes at least with its own anesthetic: cold slows all processes.  Spring is more painful: growth.  It’s hard to let the branches come forth, to anticipate the work of putting out all those millions of leaves.  But it must be done.  The sun is bright that one morning that breaks the back of winter—the air is cold, to be sure, still in the twenties.  I dress for a walk as for winter, come indoors sweating, half disrobed—by ten o’clock it’s forty degrees.  By noon, fifty, the sun higher and hotter than I remember possible.  Out of the wind down in the stream bed, standing on old bright snow covering old familiar ice, I’m hot.  The jacket comes off, the sweater, the flannel shirt, all but the t-shirt underneath (not one picked for show, that old shirt with the hole in the shoulder, the blue swath of door paint, the stupid slogan from the marathon one never ran: “Hang in There for Hugs!”).  Everything is adrip.  The chickadees, ever cheerful, find high perches and chip and buzz and whistle their pleasure.  Sparrows, too, who sing theirs.  The cardinal sets himself up on a good high branch and begins his spring song, in a Maine accent (that is, sings a regional song, distinctly different from cardinal song in Ohio), still hoping to impress his gal, despite being her life partner: chew, chew, chew, woody, woody, woody, chew.

After that fateful day, the temperature gets to just a little above freezing, almost every day.  The world around is at its scruffiest—the load of snow has pushed down every dead thing, every stalk and leaf and twig of the summer past, flattened the forest floor, flattened the lawn (which emerges afternoon by afternoon in patches, muddy and golden).  The odd fleck of green comes as a surprise: blade of hardy sedge, wood fern, branch of pine.  The snowpack lingers in the shadows on the north side of the house, crumbles gradually into corn—I walked on top of it just yesterday without a thought: solid ground.  Today I sink.  The compost heap by the stone wall at the verge of the woods emerges in mussed layers—frozen rinds from as far back as November down there, frozen peelings and stalks and cuttings and food scraps from each month since, soon to be proper wormfood, food for bacteria, too (more quickly than one would guess) gorgeous black soil.  Red knobs show in the dirt where the rhubarb will rise.  Green hands reach up everywhere from tulip and narcissus and crocus and snowdrop and hyacinth bulbs I planted so long ago I can’t think when or quite remember where.

Down in the stream, the mysterious beavers leave sign that they are venturing forth: clean-gnawed, waterlogged branchlets in pick-up-sticks piles underwater along the banks, the bones of their winter meals.  The biggest might be about big enough for a walking stick; I fish it out of the shallows, walk with it, enjoying the feel of smooth-peeled wood.

The woodpecker—one of our hairys—leaves large wood chips on the ground—he’s chiseling a house from the trunk of a popple tree half killed by the success of a tinder polypore (which is a common fungus, a conk with fruiting bodies like so many horse-hooves kicking out of the bole of the tree).

What is it makes us open our hearts in spring?  The sun hits my chest in town and I linger on the sidewalk in front of the Witt Brothers’ Rexall—suddenly I don’t mind talking with whomever’s walking past: a long and textured list of acquaintances coming out of hibernation, blinking.  The daylight seems endless, though the day is exactly half night.  I feel the old sense that everything has come into balance, every odd thing of winter, another hoop closing.  My night nature no longer overpowers my sun nature, my natural optimism is back.

And will be rewarded with light—every daylight will be longer from here on in till solstice. The westward creep of the sunsets along the ridge of our view is a movement away from solitude, away from cabin fever.  And here’s a hooray for the presence of others!  The brooks flow everywhere.  I hear them and my heart pumps harder; I’m a stream again, and no longer ice.

[From Temple Stream: Dial Press]

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