A Spring Opening
WHEN does the spring begin ? In November, if we credit the witch-hazel ; for no sooner has this vernal-hearted creature stripped off her last summer’s raiment than she decks herself out in yellow gimps and fringes, seeming to say, through the ominous rustle of falling leaves, “ Neighbors, you are all mistaken in giving up and going to sleep. See how thrifty and courageous I am ! ”
Indeed, throughout the winter, nature’s active and crescive principle seems never held wholly in abeyance. From time to time, some precocious member of a dormant family, plant or animal, may be observed awake and stirring, as one who, having much on hand to accomplish, makes an early start by candle-light. The ground-hog is probably not the only cave-dwelling worthy gifted with meteorological second-sight. The sleeping earth divines. I have always wondered at the remarkable presumption of the almanacmakers in furnishing us with a timetable showing the arrivals and departures of the seasons. They quarter the year by means of equinoxes and solstices, and we good-humoredly accept the arbitrary divisions. The only difficulty is the great number and frequency of nature’s movable festivals, which no statistician can tabulate, the order being completely changed from year to year. It takes the united skill and experience of Old Probabilities, the naturalist, and the poet to run the line of survey exact between winter and spring. The frontier is constantly shifting. A few days of sunshine push it forward many leagues in favor of spring; but the north wind, making a brisk assault from behind its icy intrenchments, repels the invasion, and reconquers the disputed territory for winter.
It is still February. You may treat it as Dies Februatus, day of purification and sacrifice ; or, as the merry month of Sprout Kele, following the faintly hopeful suggestion of the old Saxon calendar. The long snow has retreated under-ground, or is fast being carried off by numerous plethoric streams, yellow and seething as torrents of lava lately spilled from some volcano crater, presumably not far away. The earth everywhere looks shriveled and mummy-like, giving us the impression that the cerements have been folded back prematurely, or that the miracle of resurrection lags far behind the hour appointed. Last year’s crisp leaves take spasmodic flights, like bits of paper blown about in the electric current. They sail so high, one might fancy they drifted into the folds and creases of the ragged, lowlying clouds that characterize February’s sky. In yonder corn-fields the pumpkin vines lie scattered about in withered festoons; suggesting that the Lernean snake may have been captured there, dispatched, and left to dry away in the sunshine. Some trees in the orchard still bear a remnant of their last year’s fruitage: there are your cold, frostbaked apples; there your cider, well mulled and warranted not to intoxicate. Here are black walnuts, fantastically mined out by the squirrels, reminding one of the ingenious knick-knacks carved of bone or other material by soldiers in prison. These shells would now do to string for a rustic rosary, on which to bead our prayers to the sylvan deity. Here is a sparrow’s nest, plucked from its branch and thrown away by the wind as a thing capable of no more service. It interests us as some abandoned cabin on the edge of the wilderness might. Any tenement that has once sheltered a family, bird s brood or man’s brood, has for us a certain pathetic suggestiveness ; we hate to see the old homestead given over to destruction. This “ cottage in a tree,” on examination, proves to have been built almost entirely of dandelion down (of which there was abundance early last spring), strengthened by a few long tough grasses, answering for king-posts and tie-beams.
As soon as the snow is off I find in the orchard evidence of extensive agricultural operations, that have been carried on all winter under cover of the deep snow-drifts. I know the husbandman who scooped out these primitive looking furrows. lie is, in himself, a most curious piece of combination machinery, his nose being a natural plowshare, and his fore-arm a natural spade, lie may be characterized as the original Autochthon, being earth of the earth,— a clod, with a little instinct superadded. He is known by hearsay as the mole. Rare are the glimpses one may have of this shy groundling ! The field of his operations is scarcely less ambitious than that which Kubla Khan inclosed for the site of his pleasure-house : —
With walls and towers were girdled round.”
If you lay open the soil, thinking to follow his trail, you will be surprised at the great number of turns he has made, — to the right, to the left, back again upon his traces,—until you find one deep bore which descends, apparently, to the nadir. If your excavating tools are good enough, and your patience is also good, you may come upon him comfortably dozing in the penetralia of the earth.
There is likewise architectural evidence above-ground of the hibernation of his neighbor, the field-mouse. That low grass thatch, looking precisely like the geographical picture of a Hottentot house, is his. Thrust your fingers through the front door and gently lift off the roof, and you will see as cosy a domicile as ever sheltered a feathered biped. It would seem that this obscure citizen of the earth had some time been to school to the wren or sparrow, so nest-like are the structure and appointments of his sleeping-chamber. I never found much else in his larder than a few apple seeds, — small indication, indeed, of riotous living. A good many wellriddled apples lying in the path of his explorations suggested that he had been living on the vegetarian plan through the winter.
The season advances. The day is lengthened perceptibly. Yesterday, this meadow was winter’s camping-ground. To-day, a few barracks, shreds of canvas, and broken bits of ammunition (frozen drifts in fence corners and hollows) remain to speak of his occupancy. The sun and the south wind have been this way together, and after them comes the rain, obliterating these last vestiges of the flying winter.
A few days more of gentle weather, and we see little irregular paths of green winding everywhere about the pastures ; these paths mark the route taken by Spring on her first stolen, invisible round. After a while, there will be no spot of ground her quickening feet have not touched.
For the first sure indications of reviving life, consult not the bud on the tree, but put yourself en rapport with the soil. Strip off the sodden leaves, which are the patchwork quilt nature spreads over her babes in the wood. A legion seedlings stretch their whitishgreen arms about the mould. Vegetable crustaceans they are, extending their tentacles in search of food. Great mother! if these bantlings of the oak, the beech, and the maple squirm and twist, and find their cradles too short and too narrow, what will become of them by and by, when they require more room for exercise and more abundant nutrition ? Wherewithal will you feed and clothe them ? Think of the vast prairies, where you have n’t the shadow of a tree! Consider if you cannot transplant some of this surplus population in its infancy.
The old trees, I see, have recorded another year, letting out their tough bark girdles to accommodate the new layer of muscle and adipose. The sap now takes to its capillary ladders, climbing slowly, slowly; encouraged if the sun shine, faltering and retreating with every relapse of keen weather. What an Odyssey it has to accomplish, from the roots of the tree to the last bud on the outermost twig!
Who will read us the idyl of The Sugar Bush ? Let us hear no more of the honey of Hybla, or the cates that Hehe and Ganymede serve up to the Olympians ! Shakespeare may have meant the spring harvest of the maple when he said, —
And the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale! ”
This is the only tree we have that “ sweats honey.” Into its veins, as into the veins of heroes, the gods have infused ambrosia. Had the maple been indigenous in Greece, there would have been a special myth regarding it, a special custodian appointed to watch over the sacred grove. Perhaps Pan would have figured as the first sap-gatherer, the first refiner of sugar. The legend would then have run thus : Pan taught the Arcadians to pierce the forest maple, opening its veins with sharp steel, and in the mouth of the wound inserting the reed which he was wont to blow upon ; through this the immortal ichor of the tree distilled, drop by drop, into a pitcher of wreathen gold and silver, lent by the wondering Bacchantes, who stood near with Silenus, nearly astonished into soberness. Pan then built a fire of sere wood, and having poured the immortal ichor into a vessel of iron steeped it for many hours, obtaining a honey-sweet, heart-easing cordial, of which many gods and mortals partook with great delight.
There is telegraphy in the air nowadays ; hourly, momentary, messages flying between the busy rural genii. These messages may be “ taken off ” at any station along the route where there is a practiced operator, an intelligent and sympathetic ear. One hears of the mysterious trysts kept between botany and zoölogy, — of plants waking up by alarm-clocks, and of birds traveling by midnight express, on receipt of expected dispatches from head-quarters. I occasionally hear Flora and Fauna exchanging the compliments of the season, and such pleasant gossip as naturally results from their near neighborly relations : —
Fauna. I have just sent a minnow up the creek.
Flora. I’ve been blossoming out a pussy willow there by the bank.
[And after an interval :]
Fauna. I venture a bluebird.
Flora. Good. I ’ll risk a blue violet in the south meadow.
[And still later :]
Fauna. If you listen, this evening, you will hear a frog in the marsh.
Flora. To-morrow I shall send you a basket of cowslips.
Fauna. Thanks. I am just starting out a hive of bees. Would you like them to scatter pollen ?
There is no cessation of this correspondence throughout the season. The mutual consent and joint plannings of the two friendly goddesses are everywhere observable. It is to be noticed that for every bird that becomes whist and moping, after the height of summer is passed, some plant will be found putting on sackcloth and ashes, and absenting itself from Flora’s court for the rest of the year.
Severe and protracted as the winter may have been, the three chief pioneer birds, robin, song - sparrow, and bluebird. do not vary a week in their arrivals, spring after spring. How curiously elate the first robin is! Qui vive? Qui vive ? he whistles from the maple tops, on the morning following his return.
His song is the same as the thrush sang to the poet Keats, on a spring morning, sixty years ago : —
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
Oh, fret not after knowledge! I have none,
And yet the evening listens.”
He seems as one prepared to take all weather risks. His well-feathered plumpness readily suggests that he has made it a point to build up a good physique against the initial hardships of a spring campaign on the shores of Lake Erie. Does he return to his quarters of last year, — his substantial adobe house in the fork of the apple-tree ? A friend of mine reports finding a robin’s nest with basement, ground-floor, and chamber, three successive stories of good solid mason-work, built in as many successive springs, the last story only being tenanted the current season. Whether this stronghold was in the possession of the original line of builders could not he determined.
The bluebird arrives but little later than the robin, if, indeed, he does not come by the same train. Ah, the bluebird’s warble! If any bird is specially commissioned by Heaven to spread the spring evangel, it is he. Yet, like the Ariel spirit that he is, there is, at first, a touch of ventriloquism in his voice. To fix his whereabouts, we look not only “ before and after,” but overhead, and in the hushes, and along the grass, and see him not — at first. If he “bears the sky on his back,” as Thoreau thought, it must be the sky of Italy ; the heavens are never so blue over this region of the earth. There is red enough on his breast to have distinguished him as a red-breast, had it not been for the more pronounced azure of his wings.
Cold as the morning was yesterday I could hear the song-sparrow practicing his first matins for the year. No wonder his song has been compared to the tinkling of bells ! A more vibrating, resonant quality there is not in the whole choir of native-bird voices. His ditty consists of three short introductory notes (embodying the theme or motive, perhaps) ; these three notes translating themselves, to my ear, in the syllables “ sweet, sweet, sweet,” with a drawing in of the breath each time, followed by a bewildering succession of delicious tintinnabulations. From the song-sparrow’s manner of perching and addressing himself as to the auditorium, I cannot help thinking that he has been in training for the lyric stage. Not long since, I was present at a musical duel, — not between the poet and nightingale, but between two song-sparrows, both distinguished professionals. They were exchanging “ alternate strains,” after the style of Tityrus and Melibœus. Tityrus was close by, on the low branch of a willow; Melibœus at some distance, in a wild-cherry tree. The former I could both see and hear to good advantage. When he had sung through his part, he stopped, and, with head cunningly askance, listened to his rival’s performance ; paying the most jealous attention, and, meanwhile, revolving some new felicity of his own. Each time he slightly varied the cadence, winding up with a piquant little crotchet, as who should say, “Can you outdo that, I wonder?” The duel grew more animated with every bout, until the performers, forgetting the etiquette of competition, sung the “ rests,” ineffectually trying to put each other out. A third voice could then be distinguished, — probably that of the moderator, or judge, who held the wager.
That long, clear, cool note, like the arc described by a bright new sickle, — that’s the meadow-lark ! I know well the springy pasture where he hunts his breakfast, the wind-crisped pools where he sometimes dips his bill. His coming is not long delayed after the middle of March. The blackbird is his contemporary. I saw a whole flock of daring blackbirds careering above the gusty woods in the March gale. They seemed to be exercising their speed and agility in one of the heroic games of the air. When they reached a goal, or station, in the top of some high tree, they disposed themselves about the branches like so many weather-vanes, all facing in the same direction, and all indicating the south-southwest. This was practically “ trimming to the wind.” Their note, at that time, sounded very much like the creaking of overlapping branches swayed by the wind. Further on the blackbird has learned a new repertory, full of rippling pleasantness, well illustrating “ the thrilling liquidity of dewy piping.”
This April has some lovely exotic days, borrowed from the Indian summer, and applied on account of some April weather in last October. The fall and spring have many meteorological phases in common. We have now the same luminous white skies, the same drowsy luxury in the atmosphere, with heat waves over the distant fields, that were characteristic of the Indian summer. The tawny and crimson inflorescence of maples and other early-budding trees contributes to the autumnal glamour of the picture. Except for the greenness of the grass and a certain verve and freshness within our hearts, we might imagine we were drifting up the source of the year, to find the summer by way of October and September. But the spring is here. There is nothing dead or inorganic to be seen. The maple brush left by the choppers last winter is bourgeoning out, in cheerful unconsciousness that its veins are cut off from the arterial supply. The log rotting in the woods, if it puts forth no new life in kind, at least supports a lusty growth of ferns and mosses. Who knows how much stubborn rock went to mill, last winter, to be ground up into good fertile soil? Who knows but the very stones are softening, continually growing more tenable to the feet of such poor humble plants as are disposed to take up their abode with them ? I should not be surprised to hear that nature herself was the Pyrrha who, surviving the deluge, and casting stones behind her to repeople the earth, saw them assume organic life and form. The earth breathes freely once more, respiring vapor and gnats from the freshturned soil; and as the farmer goes back and forth, plowing out the old legend of Boustrophedon, he is followed by the robin and blackbird, diligently grubhunting. They may well chuckle to themselves, and claim priority in the profits of tillage; in their view of the question, man’s harvest is only aftermath.
How luxurious is the feeling of the dew in the first moist April nights ! The sharp-eyed winter stars are all gone under the west. No more hurling of frost javelins and jagged meteor lances, but, instead, the soft descent of humid beams that have been filtered through the same sieve that strains the dew. If you require an additional proof of the season’s settled good faith, if you would have the spring well indorsed, walk under the trees, this evening, and observe if anything forbids your progress. Nothing but a slight ticklish thread stretched across your eyelids, like the gentlest premonition of sleep. That will do. That is the spider’s indorsement of the spring. When she harnesses her loom, and begins her season’s weaving, you may be sure she has had favorable advices from the head weather clerk.
May-day ! The woods and meadow borders are full of wild flowers ; claytonia, cress, adder-tongue, violet, buttercup, sweet-william, liverwort, crane’s-bill, bloom and flow together in rich chromatic confusion. The trilHum hangs over the dark pool, with the melancholy grace of Narcissus worshiping his shadow. The viburnum (very fitly nick-named hobble-bush) reaches up its scraggy, hands, with a few scant cymes of very pretty white flowers. Notice that the spring wears in her cap no feverish or radical color ; carnation and Tyrian purple are reserved for the gaudy decking of the latter summer. A few forward shrubs have, by this time, put out a sparse leafage, still creased and crinkled, and of small vitality (like butterflies just emerged from the chrysalis). The air that circulates through the branches seems to have gathered chlorophyl by contact with the leaves, and the sunshine passing into their medium becomes a bright green flame. The gentle race of zephyrs has sprung up again. The wind has a changed articulation ; no longer breathing out “ hollow oes and aes,” as when it had full sweep through the naked frames of the trees, but breaking into a thousand petty symphonies, in its wanderings among the leaves.
In the spring of the year, when the spirit of beauty enters into so many earthly tabernacles, we return to the ancient pantheism. Naiads, fauns, oreads, hamadryads, — the whole sylvan community are once more accessible and social. The wood nymph, who taught King Nurna the elements of science, letters, and political economy, and who has outlived a thousand Numas, graciously consents to take us into her tuition. The school-house is large and airy; the textbooks are latest editions, in most legible typography ; matriculation fees — nothing. Let us attend. It promises better than the Summer School of Philosophy.