May 7, 2012
A VERNAL ELEGY
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Each morning that there’s a sunrise, I check out the wall beside Mother’s office door. The early sun is now shining through the north windows, and the sliver of light coming through her open doorway is migrating southward across the wall just outside it in the hall. It’s moved a few inches this past week, and next will be shining on the hall floor. Which will mean that whatever the weather – whatever the sugar season, whatever the late skiing, whatever the river flows – may have been, it’s spring.
The morning sun hits the front of the garage full on (as planned, in consideration of its benevolent effect in winter), and the reflection fills my west-facing window with light.
If you ask any New England schoolchild to paint a picture of a tree, she’ll invariably portray it in full leaf, with perhaps a robin or several apples in its branches. But if you think about it yourself, and count months on your fingers, you’ll find that our trees are about a month longer bare than verdant. What the child is painting is an image of utopia, where things are forever as we’d like them. Still, this annual explosion, however brief its life, is lovely to experience. Walking in the park, as I do most afternoons with a pocketful of dog biscuits, I’m suddenly in tunnels of leaves. The hardwoods are leafing out; and their pale early green reminds me that in just a few days I won’t be able to stop and chat with people I meet. The black flies will be out., and anything slower than a brisk walk invites a cloud of unwanted company around your ears. Actually, they don’t bother me much – disagreeable aura of some kind, I suppose – but they do get after the people I’m trying to talk to. The dogs love me, but their owners probably think of me as the Ancient Mariner.
The daffodils, seduced by this year’s warm March, emerged and were slaughtered by the last hard frost. But the coltsfoot wasn’t the slightest daunted. Its blooms have now pretty much gone by, and its leaves are emerging. Nothing flusters the dandelions; I have the lawnmower set on high, and most of them ducked under the blades during the first mowing. The marsh marigolds I planted in a drainage ditch out back in the woods a couple of years ago are flourishing, and one plant has mysteriously managed to appear in a different ditch 100 yards away. A mass of bluets, thousands of them, about 50 feet long has sprung up on a little terrace just at eye level across the dooryard. Looking at them edge-on is like gazing at the Milky Way: a swarm of tiny stars.
The foxes have had their kits, and the skunks their pups, the phoebes are back in the eave of the garage, and a robin has found the basket I screwed up under the house eaves over the back porch. No more nests in the garage; I got the doors put on last fall. But I haven’t filled the hummingbird feeder yet, and just a few minutes ago a tiny ruby-throat mother-to-be hovered outside the dining room window, looking in and clearly saying,”Ahem...”
There’s a slightly sad element in all this bursting life. I had to drive to Malone, New York, a couple of days ago, and was struck by all the small dead animals beside the road – skunks, raccoons, woodchucks, a beaver, and a couple of foxes. Their still corpses have significance beyond themselves. Many of them were foraging for food for dens full of little ones somewhere, who will slowly die, wondering why their parent hasn’t come back.
I hadn’t been fishing since last summer, a grievous situation. There’s nothing I’ve enjoyed much more in life than the often exquisite pas de deux with a fish I know is there, and to whom I mean no harm in the world, if only he’ll join me for a few minutes. Seeing the cars parked beside the Winooski, the White, the Wells, and the Waits was giving me a pain, because I don’t quite dare fish a river alone anymore. One fellow to whom I complained advised me to go ahead, but take my cell phone. Wonderful idea; but cell phones don’t work too well when they’ve been dunked, which is what mine would have been if I needed help.
Then my dear friend Ken called. Come for lunch after church, he said, and then we’ll fish the pond for a couple of hours.
It was a great lunch and a perfect afternoon: just enough breeze to riffle the water, bright sunlight except where the trees hung over the water, and the occasional splash of a good rising fish here and there. Ken rowed and trolled; I fished. The conversation was easy, and the fish were there. It wasn’t too long before that wonderful, familiar thrill came though the line. I can always pretty much tell the size of a fish by the speed of its head shakes: Slow, deliberate head shakes equal a big fish. This one was a rainbow, about two pounds and strong. We admired him briefly and sent him back for further schooling.
Later I asked Ken about the monster trout that Daniel Webster reputedly caught on a long-ago spring Sunday. Ken has read every letter extant that Daniel Webster ever wrote, and as he says, “Webster wasn’t shy about his accomplishments.” Nowhere in those thousands of pieces of scrawled correspondence is there any mention of such a fish. Sadly, it’s just a legend. Ken’s saying so in an article he once wrote elicited angry mail from true believers with a professional stake in fish stories. But Ken wouldn’t budge; he’s a historian. It never happened.
Today, on our way home in the cooling air, the sun dropping through the newly leaved trees, I reflected how many times we’d played this same scene together. More times by far than we still will. But this afternoon, on a perfect spring day, was enough – even if we never do it again.