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The Merry, Melancholy Month of May

Bill Meredith

Mostly it had been as good as May can be,
even in merry tales.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Being born was a confusing event in my life. It took several days for me to figure out where I was and why I had arrived just then. My mother explained that April had been too rainy, and June was going to be too hot, and she assured me that May would be a merry time. I remember telling her that I was glad she had decided to have me just then, and I asked her why the month of May was so merry. She probably figured I was too young to understand what alliteration means, so instead of explaining, she told me an old nursery rhyme:

In the merry month of May,

When green leaves begin to spring,

Little lambs do skip like fairies,

Birds do couple, build and sing.

At the time, I didn't know what "couple" meant (probably just as well), but the rest of it made sense; there was a pair of wrens building a nest in an old tea-kettle on the back porch and singing as if they were having a great time at it. Some time later I found that the phrase had been in common use since the mid-1500s, when the composer, William Byrd, wrote a madrigal called "The Merrye Month of May" which he dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I at her coronation. Spring came later in those days; the earth was still in that period called the "Little Ice Age," and winter was just breaking up when May got here. It was a time of blooming and planting, finally getting warm enough for picnics and festivals… a time of innocent fun for young folks, when girls put on their best dresses, wove flowers in their hair and danced around May-poles.

Times have changed. My wife tells me pole-dancing is completely different now, and spring comes at least a month earlier now than it did 450 years ago. This year, the snows of February and March acted like a dam; they held everything back, so when April finally got here, everything happened at once. Normally I would have pruned trees and shrubs in February; this year, there was only time to remove the branches damaged by snow before it was time to plow the garden. The temperature seemed to have been dammed up too; when April got here, it skipped its usual gradual rise and shot straight into the 90s. The trees and perennials in the yard ignored the carefully planned blooming schedule I had given them, and all burst out at once.

With everything so far off schedule, I was a bit apprehensive about making my annual spring pilgrimage to Toms Creek. It was a little like going to visit old friends you haven't seen for a long time; the house is still there, but you aren't sure they are still living in it. I found the floodplain ecosystem was in the same state of confusion as my yard. After tramping around a while, I found all of the spring flowers… violets of several colors, spring beauties, toothworts, trout lilies, Dutchman's breeches, bluebells… all trying to bloom after being delayed, while having to compete with summer grasses and weeds that had been tricked into starting early by the April heat wave. The old sycamore tree was still there, resolutely clinging to the stream bank and coming into leaf again, with the rusted remains of cables protruding from its trunk where it used to support a suspension bridge over the creek … too old to be merry, perhaps, but an encouraging reminder that determination and patience are rewarded by survival. Finding the old friends still at home was an occasion for merry feelings, although it was embarrassing to realize that I was unable to recall some of their names.

There are always new things to see. Near the old sycamore was a clump of snowdrops that had sprouted from bulbs washed down from someone's yard in a previous year's flood; they were blooming merrily, and looked healthier than the ones in my flowerbed. And on the pool behind the old mill dam, mixed among a flock of wood ducks were two pairs of common mergansers. They are large, fish-eating ducks; I have seen them migrating through this area often, but never before on Toms Creek. The males have black heads and white bodies; the females have reddish heads with gray bodies. They made a spectacular sight, and they seemed to be having a merry time. Coupling was obviously on their minds.

Change is a normal process in a floodplain. The winter's snow melted quickly and produced more flooding than usual, so many of the places where flowers grew last year were covered with several inches of silt. The stream bank was eroded back several feet in some places, exposing the roots of trees; many of them will fall over in storms later this year. This is as it always has been; bulbs from the buried flowers will come up next year, and new trees will grow merrily, though not in my lifetime. But other changes are happening which are not part of the normal cycle and which cast the future in a more melancholy light. Alien plants are invading the area, threatening to crowd out native species. Multiflora rose thorns make it impossible to walk through formerly open places; "mile-a-minute" vines and Japanese honeysuckle are smothering native shrubs like alder and witch-hazel; and nearly all of the elm trees have succumbed to the Dutch elm fungus.

Turning toward home, I felt a sort of kinship for Bilbo Baggins, the old Hobbit who was conned into going on a quest with Thorin Oakenshield's band of dwarves. It was as fine as a day in May can be when they started out, but Bilbo wasn't sure where they were going or what they were after, and he would rather have stayed home. Life is like that… a quest, and you have to go whether you want to or not. I wasn't so concerned about it when I was a week old and just starting out, but you get a different perspective as the quest goes on. So, I will watch May pass for the 77th time… hoping some of it will be like it was in merry tales, knowing that, realistically, melancholy tales will be recited too. We have learned… I, the flowers, the sycamore… the lesson of the floodplain: accept what life brings, and get on with the quest.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith