A Yankee Notebook

April 25, 2016


MONTPELIER – You know how it is with an April day... As usual, whenever any of us has a bright idea about life in New England, Robert Frost has been there ahead of us. His two spring poems “Two Tramps in Mud Time” and “Mending Wall” are far too good to encourage any aspiring poets. Instead, they frustrate: Reading either one is like falling off the pace in an eight-lap race and hearing the leader coming up behind you.

However it is, many of us spend the month of April (T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month) either “one month on in the middle of May” or “two months back in the middle of March.” Do we get the winter tires taken off? Winter windshield wipers? Do we mothball the snow blower? Do we change the storm panels for the summer screens in the outside doors? Do we clean out the ashes from the wood boiler, or will there be another firing? Some of these jobs – like taking down the outside Christmas decorations – occasionally get put off long enough in New England that it’s less a wait for the next season than a procrastination from the last. (We had a rector years ago at our church, a fellow from away, who thought the holiday decorations in July an expression of our Vermont Christmas spirit. We did not disabuse him of his rose-tinted impression.)

Back in my outdoor working days, April and May were delightful, just as were their counterparts, September and October.  Good sunlight all day, pleasant temperatures, weight restrictions lifted on the back roads, building materials left on the job not frozen together in the morning, and no black flies. The weather isn’t as big a deal for me anymore, but there are little features of these in-between times that bring quiet joy: the furnace only rarely cycling, the solar hot water heater meter spinning like a top, and the sun flooding the kitchen through the east windows at breakfast time and lighting my crossword puzle through the west windows in the evening.

The coltsfoot, that harbinger of spring in poor soil, seemed to sense that April would be a bit of a seesaw. It began to bloom early, as usual, but sparsely, and only in the sunniest spots, and tentatively, at that. When that last cold snap struck, the tiny yellow aster-like blossoms went shy and folded up to the size of garden peas. But the moment the cold went grumbling away to Maine and the Maritimes, they came blasting back, and brought all their siblings with them.

What a difference! We had the side and back yards logged last winter, and now that the snow’s retreated, the property looks like a French battleground in 1918. But the thousands of bright little blossoms – even though they signify that we have lousy soil – bring a bit of life and beauty to the otherwise blasted landscape. I have a sneaking suspicion there are a lot of infant balsam firs lurking in that mess – I’ve spotted a few – just waiting for the sun to lift up their heads and begin to replace what’s been lost. The plants all around us, upon which we depend for all our sustenance, grow all by themselves without us, grow oftentimes with our help, and sometimes grow in spite of us. Utterly unaware of the wrangling that so consumes the bipedal species sharing their environment, they come and go as they have for millennia, working with whatever is given them. Our activity is hurting them badly, but I suspect they’ll survive us, in one way or another.

The birds, too, pretty much take whatever the weather throws at them, for better or worse. In 1974 a late cold snap in May killed or suppressed the flying insects that flycatchers feed on, and the Upper Valley experienced a massive starvation of hundreds of bright scarlet tanagers. In 1997, an exceptionally disagreeable summer in the Canadian Arctic, my friends and I shivered in one sleet-tortured campsite surrounded by thousands of corpses of unfortunate Lapland longspurs.

Nothing like that is happening here today. The usual winter birds – chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, finches, and woodpeckers – are still at the feeder, the robins are hunting on the lawn, and I’ve seen a phoebe or two flitting about – one of them briefly checked out the nesting box I built in the peak of the garage gable – and a pair of flickers, something new. I enjoy having them around for the novelty, as long as they don’t start hammering on the house.

I like to leave the garage doors open on sunny days, just to get some fresh, dry air in there. But not in April or May. For years I’ve had phoebes and robins nesting on top of the overhead light fixtures and stepladders, and I was happy to be hospitable. But they turned out to be, like hornets, terrible judges of human intentions, and fled squawking whenever my shadow darkened the door sill. That was all right, too; but I couldn’t abide what they did as they flew above the vehicles, and got sick of scrubbing the roofs every day or two. So now the doors stay shut until the birds are done raising their broods for the summer.

There’s been a bit of chat this week on Facebook about various posters’ preparations for whatever’s coming next. The cautious ones are sticking with their snow tires and storm windows and keeping the shovels and snow blower handy. Others have gone already to screens and unlimbered their barbecues. I’ve hedged my bets by putting the summer tires and wipers on the truck and leaving the winter tires on Mother’s car. I’ve stored the heavy shatterproof glass door storm panels in the attic, an increasingly exciting exercise as I embrace my eighties. I’m ready.

Today was a lovely one, sunny and cool. The cries of turtledoves filled the air. But it’s been breezy for two days, and looking up, I spotted fluffy jet contrails everywhere. Sure enough, a few minutes ago the radio forecast rain and possibly a few inches of snow after midnight. Here we go again! –  two months back in the middle of March.

Photo by Willem lange