Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Winter, in my neck of the woods, is boiling and cooling and dampening into spring.
I got the tangible signs of the season first from my next-door neighbor, who, early in the week, decided to finish off this year’s store of maple syrup. A voicemail on my smartphone over the weekend announced simply, “I’m boiling Sunday, if you’re interested.”
He is a man who knows the value of communicating only the essential words, the straightforward message.
But Sunday drifted into Monday, and he was still at work that afternoon on the last 21⁄2 gallons of syrup, boiled down from something like 75 gallons of sap – a lot of water gone. His boiling pots were gigantic catering-size pans, three of them arranged in a line on a low stack of concrete blocks that formed a suitable tunnel-like structure from an outdoor oven or barbecue pit.
The whole contraption had that slightly Rube Goldberg appearance that seems to be my natural style of home decorating anyway, so I felt right at home as I danced around the fire, attempting to dodge the clouds of smoke gusting from the flames.
“The rule is, wherever you move, that’s where the smoke goes next,” my neighbor said.
“OK then, I’ll stand still,” I said.
I hung around for 15 or 20 minutes, getting the full tour, the complete instructions on backyard maple-syrup production, a glimpse of his tools: the simple table chair propped against the shed, a paperback book and his famous transistor radio.
It looked good to me.
In the end, even though there was still syrup-to-be on the fire, he led me indoors to the living room, where jars and jars of finished syrup were arranged carefully, lined up like a small army. He let me review the troops, then handed me a jar of amber syrup that could have been mistaken for honey.
It was just the first sweet taste of spring. The landscape I crossed and re-crossed over the course of the week glowed with the brighter light of spring, greens greener, the blue sky bigger and deeper than the snow so recently absent, the rolling hills of meadows looking unkempt but expectant.
Expectant, that’s it. Spring is the season when the blood brims with preparation for surprise, even for the reiterations of nature that are so familiar they could be nursery rhymes, a light-hearted communal memory. When the snowdrops nod, the dandelions perk up and the skunk cabbage unwinds in the wetlands, there’s nothing new about it except the drooped countenances of the small flowers and the purple striations of the wild plant still seem like the dawn of creation, draped over you like a prayer shawl, a worship of the power that the poet Dylan Thomas described as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” – driving the green age of each of us, and destroying.
But for a few precious weeks, destroying and decline will be the furthest thing from my mind. I’m already planning my garden, soliciting bids for roto-tilling, starting spring cleaning and completing taxes – in short setting myself free, to be observant, to be outdoors, to share the marvelous, muddy world with a retriever who has evolved an appetite for new sorts of swimming in half-thawed ponds and mud puddles since sandier shores cannot be found.
I’m never really prepared for the joy and startle of the spring. Last evening a nuthatch turned up to hop on the oak off the deck, making it seem that the bark itself was pulsating. And later the phoebe returned to the cross beams of the A-frame, wagged and flicked its tail, and sang bold and briefly as if to formally announce plans to nest on the property again this year.
But it was no bird that communicated spring to me most this week, even though the appearance of feathers is a welcome phenomenon worthy of praise. It was a frog that came knocking on the pane of the window of the back door, just as the patter of heavy rain relented and I herded the dog out for one last adventure of the day.
I had sent the golden out, her bear-like rump sashaying into the rain and disappearing into the dark. I took hold of the knob and swung the heavy metal door from behind me in an arc that positioned one square of glass right in front of my eyes.
At first, as I kept moving the door toward a full close, I thought a tiny tatter of leaf had blown up off the ground (I didn’t, I confess, get the raking done last fall and have lived to regret the missed maintenance resulting in trails of rotting leaves constantly indoors).
But something stopped me though thickness of the stuck litter wasn’t it, and I took a closer, slower, more careful look.
It was a newly emerged wood frog, appearing out of those same unraked leaves, making a visit to the sleek surface of a window glass, then staying still enough to be give the impression of a wind-lorn leaf.
I pried it from the glass gently, said hello and let it perch in the palm of my hand while I made mental notes on its markings and behavior. Just then the dog bulled her way back in, and it was too much movement in an unfamiliar place for the frog to tolerate.
It leapt against my chest, then flailed out the door onto the faded, soaked planks.
I peered and searched, craned and bent closer and found it finally. At that instant, it leapt again, this time hurtling through the dark, its white belly spinning upward, bright as a struck match or fallen star. And, like all small fires, spent itself into dark.
I find my way through the brown nights and inclement weather with all the little lights of spring edging into near landscape. The owls will return in dominion, the salamanders dart. Soon the peepers will tune in, and the layers of music made in nature’s heaven will be an inescapable chorus. Take note, I remind myself. And sing.
Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: