April 14, 2013

North Cairn: Frog’s arrival has winter croaking

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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