A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Hardly to be Believed

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica a few years ago. Lovely place. But by the time we were due to return home, I found I could hardly wait to get there. The weather had been lovely, and the bird-watching spectacular. Each day was much like the one before, and each coming day would be, as well. At ten degrees north of the equator (even the United States’ farthest south, Key West, reaches only to about 23º), there was no discernible difference in temperature or length of days in Puntarenas. What was causing my discomfort was the lack of temperature volatility and the promised change of seasons.

At the other end of the spectrum, my friend Larry Whittaker in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, at 67.8º N, emailed me earlier this week: “Not much to report here. It’s still miles below freezing here and the snow has not even started to melt yet. But at least the days are MUCH longer now.”

Those are two extremes of seasons: One changes almost not at all, and the other is hardly to be believed. I must admit, of course, that it is very pleasant to sit outdoors reading on a January day, and on the other hand, to read in a tent (think a gazillion black flies) on a sunlit Arctic midnight. But given a choice, I’ll opt for the pleasures of seasonal change we enjoy right here in New England, halfway between the two.

It’s a ritual most closely followed during the spring of the year. Thanks to cell phones and the internet, we no longer have to go down to the general store to check on how everybody else is doing. Facebook is our general store chat room, open 24 hours a day.

Irrespective of the mud-wrestling exhibition under the Capitol dome in Washington, spring moves north at her own fitful, but inexorable pace. Winter retreats similarly. The sun, like Larry’s in the Arctic, stands longer in the sky, and inevitably the earth responds. The snow retreats from the fields, lingering along the south edges where the trees cast a shade. The top layers of frozen dirt on our back roads turns to mush – rather like Dinty Moore’s beef stew without the carrots. The water in the mix has nowhere to go; the layers below are still frozen and impermeable, and we have the spectacular phenomenon of mud season. The internet lights up with photos of contenders for the least impassable morasses.

At the same time, wedges of north-migrating geese fill the sky on every south wind, and the aroma of boiling maple sap fills the lower air. The geese won’t go far – only to the end of open water, probably the St. Lawrence River. My spies up there tell me they’re now leaving the river and heading farther north; and the sugar-makers, cleaning up their gear on sunny days, are assessing the results of their season.

For me, as I’m sure for many other oldsters, spring brings the promise of safer mobility. How I exulted when the sheets of almost-hidden ice disappeared from the yard between my back door and the garage! I’d promised my kids and the visiting nurse to leave my car right at the foot of the covered ramp, no matter what the weather, until it was safe for old broken bones to cross the eighty feet of gravel. I’m, however, unable to promise the cleaning lady not to track in any of that gravel. I use the boot-scraper vigorously, but Kiki’s another story – and she’s got twice as many feet.

M wife’s daffodils and irises are in a shady spot, and always late coming up. Invading coltsfoot, though, is everywhere. The little concrete Virgin Mary who normally graces the well head among the flowers is still lying on her back where the snowplow left her. I’ve got to get her back on her feet. My lawn, such as it is, is turning green, and the russet meadow is showing signs of life.

I had a couple of weeping willows planted in especially wet spots on the slope behind the garage. They’ve turned a brilliant yellow-green. The red oaks – nothing. They’ll be along. A hawk glided smoothly across the yard yesterday, harassed by a small murder of crows. A pileated woodpecker is playing hell with a dying white ash down along the driveway, and I’m pretty sure a pair of cardinals is nesting in my big hemlock out back. At least they’re using it as a platform for their beautiful vocal performances.

But the ones I really keep my eye on are the tamaracks. Denizens (and to me, symbols) of the north, they stretch across Canada all the way to tree line, where they wave in the wind like modern dancers. I’ve got an arc of them around our old dog’s grave and two lines in other spots on the property. They’re a little cautious about affirming that the threats of erratic spring have passed, but just this week they’ve begun to show their tiny pea-green needles. When they leaf out, it’s black fly season, and winter is over at last.

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