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A Yankee Notebook

May 13, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – During the first two weeks of May, as regularly as clockwork, three important things happen in our lives here in the bushes of central Vermont: The first black fly appears in front of my eyes in the back yard (average date May 6); the American tamaracks (Larix laricina), my favorite trees, leaf out in a lovely shade of pale green; and the periwinkle blooms on the dog’s grave. That mixture of delight, irritation, and nostalgia expresses perfectly the nature of life in this little corner of North America.

I keep a record in my journal of the first black fly, and this year hit the average date right on the button. She homed in on the carbon dioxide I was exhaling as I whacked away at a clapboard nail, and zeroed in on my body heat and moisture. I couldn’t snatch her out of the air, so let her be, and dared her to do her worst. As far as i can tell, she didn’t. But Mother complained, a few hours later, of her first bite. They like her better, and she reacts more noticeably in every way.

As soon as the ice goes out of the little brook just beside and about twenty feet below the house, I can visualize them down there: thousands of tiny larvae clinging to the rocks on the stream bottom and flushing nutrients through their burgeoning little bodies. Then, right about Cinco de Maio, as if in celebration, they pupate, rise to the surface, and emerge with one goal in mind – to find and extract warm blood from bird or mammal. Their pestiferousness is legendary; a popular Canadian song celebrates their swarming; defenseless herds of caribou seek snowfields or lakes to escape the biting; and men have been known to go mad from constant exposure.

The worst I’ve ever seen them was once right at treeline in northern Quebec, along the Leaf River. They dropped into our coffee cups in great rafts, flew into our mouths when we lifted our headnets to eat or drink, and crawled into every crevice in our clothing. I took off my trousers in the tent one night to climb into my sleeping bag and thought for a moment I had Ebola virus. My shorts were soaked with blood where they’d crawled in, bitten me, and died trying to get out.

At breezy campsites, each of us had a sort of windsock of flies to leeward. If we faced the wind, only a few of them could pull themselves up into our ears; if we turned downwind, our faces were full of them. So I started strolling casually to windward of the nearest man, and found I could wipe off my tormenters onto him for a few seconds, anyway. Once the others figured out what I was doing, our little gathering took on the movements of a square dance do-si-do, as everybody tried to get to windward of everybody else. So a few flies in my back yard don’t bother me at all.

The tamaracks, too, are creatures of the taiga and treeline. I love them for their associations with beautiful, wild places, their delicate green in early May, and their copper color in the fall, just before their needles fall. The partridges love them, too, for their tiny cones. In a wind, the tamaracks’ companions, the black spruce, tip back and forth stiffly, like those weighted inflated dummies that kids punch. The tamaracks, in contrast, sway and bend and toss their tops like modern dancers with long hair.

They get the name we use – tamarack, “snowshoe wood” – from the Abenakis. The Cree, a little farther west, split them into boards, steam one end, and make the toboggans they use to haul their stuff in winter. We don’t use them for much, but I love to have them around. The American species likes wet ground, and we’ve got a lot of that. I found a guy in northern Vermont who planted a bunch of them here and there around the house. Most of ‘em are doing fine, especially the ones in direct sunlight.

Which brings me to the sad part, the periwinkle on the dog’s grave. Her name was Tucker. Just before she died – we could tell it was a matter of a few days at most – she and I went to the lumber yard and picked out the best clear wide pine boards we could find, and I made her coffin from them. After she and her friend Maggie were buried together at the foot of the yard (Maggie in an urn between Tucker’s front feet), we planted an arc of tamaracks around one side and enclosed the mound with a low rim. I knew what to plant there. When we lived in Etna, she and I walked several times a week over the two miles of Appalachian Trail that I took care of. At one end was a huge bed of periwinkle (most folks call it creeping myrtle) that she always snuffled in when it was blooming. So Mother, on one of her visits to the Upper Valley, dug up a few clumps of it, and we planted it inside the rim. We knew it wouldn’t stay there, but I mow all around it, so it’ll be under control until whoever comes after me ignores its ambitions, and it gets away from him.

Thus has a very ordinary yard become the catalyst for a full range of emotions that no one looking at it would suspect. He might catch on to one of them if he were to help me with the siding on a cloudy day with no wind, when the Simulidae come out in force. (My favorite species name is Simulium damnosum, coined no doubt by a taxonomist under siege.) But the romance of the tamaracks would be lost upon him, unless he’d seen them clawing at life and waving gracefully in the wind at the edge of the Great Barren Lands. And the four-foot circle of periwinkle would be just that – a planting between a small arc of trees and a welded steel sculpture. He’d never suspect how, when I mow around it, I apologize to Tucker and Maggie for the racket; how sometimes on a late spring afternoon I take a lawn chair and a shot of bourbon down there to reminisce, talk with the girls, and assure them I’m not too far behind, and that we’ll have a grand old time time when I get there. Always, a line of Rupert Brooke comes tearfully to me: “There shall be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed.” Ach! it’s not safe for me to be outside the first two weeks in May.

Photo by Willem lange