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A Yankee Notebook

April 29, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – To get to my shop from the foot of the cellar stairs, I pass a pair of full-glass French doors that open into the front yard. As I passed the doors yesterday morning a little after breakfast, there was a little flurrying down low, by the bottom of the glass. A sparrow was perched on the window trim, looking intently in at me. I moved a little; he flew into a bush beside the door; I moved again; he flew back to the door and fluttered up and down the glass, obviously trying to get in. Then he stopped to rest for a few seconds, and I got a close look at him. The mind, at moments like that, narrows things down: size, posture, color, markings, behavior. When I got a look at the top of his head, I had him – white-throated sparrow. Great! I love ‘em. Was he perhaps scoping out the bushes for a nest by the French doors?

Later, when I passed the doors again, I saw bits of feathery fluff stuck to the glass, and figured out what he was up to. He wasn’t asking to come in; he was attacking his reflection in the glass door. That was good news: He was defending territory he’d just claimed against a presumed rival. I hoped he’d give up attacking the door and learn to cohabit with the phantom interloper.

White-throated sparrows – like loons, Canada jays, and wild geese – strike a resonant chord in lovers of wild places. Decades ago in the Adirondacks, the white-throat’s song was a constant companion on the mountainsides in the summer. Bulling one June day through thick brush at the top of the headwall of Jobildunc Ravine on New Hampshire’s Mount Moosilauke, I heard one singing its heart out, and stopped to listen for long minutes. Most folks say that its song’s words are “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Canadians, of course, prefer “Oh, Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” When I was growing up in the Diocese of Central New York, our bishop was Malcolm Peabody, so when I heard my first white-throat, I called it the Bishop’s Bird, and was gratified years later to find I’d gotten the Peabody part right, at least. And now here was one right at our front door, acting territorial – a good sign. That afternoon he sang from a tree beside the front yard. We may be in for a summer of it.

At every change of the season, New Englanders swap signs of the times. Used to be, they did it at the general store or the feed mill. Now it’s via the Internet. In midwinter, we match low temperatures to answer the question, “How cold d’ya have it to your place this mornin’?” In the fall, we talk about spectacular leaf color and frost on our gardens. It’s hard for people from away to appreciate the great differences there can be in even one town: You lose your tomatoes, and I don’t; I’ve got ten below up here on the hill; you’ve got twenty below in the river valley. But at no other time of the year are there such differences in signs of the times as in spring. We’ve all been waiting for months for the first hint that botanical resurrection is upon us, and we’ve suffered the pangs of the damned time and again as three inches of fresh snow covered up the first yellow wild flowers of spring and left the early robins to hop, dazed, across the lawn, up to their knees in it. Our Facebook friends from just a few dozen miles south of us post photographs of crocuses and daffodils; we look out the window at hopeless desolation. For assurance that somebody has it worse than we, I e-mail friends living beyond 66 degrees north.

Automatically, I get the ten-foot ladder and clean the old robins’ nests out of the baskets hung from the house. This year, my son-in-law Todd and I got the soffit up on the barn so the phoebes, when they come, won’t nest in the overhang. Way up high, under the peak of the gable, we put up a magnificent phoebe nesting platform that I’d spent part of the winter puttering away at. It even has a fancy floor of shiny black plastic ice-and-water dam left over from a roofing job.

The birds abandoned us late in the winter, and others had the same experience. Only the woodpeckers persisted, whacking away through the wire cages at the suet inside. Finally they left, too. It was hard not to take it personally. But all of a sudden this week, they’re back – flocks of chickadees and their camp-followers, the nuthatches; a few bursts of juncoes, on their way north; a pair of lovely house finches. There are two mourning doves who don’t touch the feeder, but pick up what drops from it onto the porch. Our fingers are crossed that the indigo buntings and purple finches will favor us again this year. And I’m looking for a hummingbird feeder that’ll give the little guys a place to perch while they drink, if they want to. Two weeks ago in Cuba I saw birds that were fattening up for their annual trip to New England. They have to fly ninety miles across the Straits of Florida and all the way up the coast or through the Appalachians, and a majority won’t make it. So there’s nothing too good for them at this end, as far as I’m concerned.

Our earliest flower here in the bushes of Vermont is the coltsfoot, blooming along the driveway and around the barn. The blossom, strangely, precedes the leaves, which are large and discourage competition. But for now it’s just the bright yellow blossoms. When I step outside in a cold morning, I find them all closed up as tight as a daylily at dawn. But after a few minutes in the sunshine, they open up as big as dandelions. Meanwhile, a few brave daffodils have bloomed in the back yard. Nothing yet – not even a leaf – from the marsh marigolds. Too much shade in the paddy where I planted ‘em, and the water’s still ice-cold. But soon, I hope.

Every window I look out of, there are little winged creatures whizzing back and forth. Some are passing by on their way north; others will stay. A few minutes ago I looked out the front window, and there were a pair of the mallards who visited most of the winter. I can only imagine what they’re finding to eat on the lawn. If they return tomorrow, they’ll find a pile of cracked corn. It’s the least we can do for the creatures who bring life back to us with the promise of spring.

Photo by Willem lange