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Spring is Here, I Hear

Bill Meredith

"In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of what the young women have been thinking about all winter."
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

"Beware the equinox, my son… the jaws that bite, the claws that catch…."
-Lewis Carroll

(April, 2012) For those who are sticklers about tradition, the Vernal Equinox arrived at 1:14 a.m. on March 20 this year. The news media dutifully informed the inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere that spring is here, and as with Groundhog Day, recited the abundance of absurd traditions that must be discussed and tested on that date. For example, since the sun is directly over the equator, it is believed by those who believe such things that eggs, given the opportunity, will readily balance themselves on end, and brooms will balance themselves on the tips of their straw ends when stood up on the kitchen floor. I never tried the brooms… that seemed more likely to be possible at the fall equinox, which was closer to Halloween… but I remember trying to balance eggs in my grandmother’s kitchen. I recall being amazed that my Uncle Fay could do it, and I was much disillusioned later when I found he had carefully broken the eggshell to make a flat place on the end of it.

Anthropologists tell us that ancient peoples, from the builders of Stonehenge in England to the creators of the Anasazi Sun Dagger in New Mexico, were able to date the equinox with precision, although they didn’t even know the earth is round. It has been an important date throughout human history; before Julius Caesar standardized the calendar in 45 BC, the equinox was widely regarded as the beginning of the New Year, and was marked by festivals celebrating fertility and new growth. Christian cultures still use it to determine the date of Easter, and in some Islamic cultures it still marks the feast of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Things change. What was important to one generation may not be so to another. The census of 2010 shows that 84% of the U. S. population now lives in urban areas; of the other 16%, perhaps only a third are actually farmers. So to 95% of the population, equinoxes are only a curiosity. But at the 1930 census, three years before my birth, we were 44% rural, and in 1900, around the time my parents were born, the figure was 60%. My grandmother, who was the source of many of my early beliefs, was born in 1868, and the equinox was an important date to her. It was time to start getting ready for gardening, which in the course of time would determine how well the family ate in the coming year. She knew there would still be hard frosts and occasional snows, but the garden had to be plowed and seeds saved from last year’s tomatoes had to be started in pots on the kitchen windowsill. Knowing that potatoes could stand some cold weather, she allowed Grandpa to express his Irish heritage and plant them a few days before the equinox, on St. Patrick’s Day (provided that it didn’t fall on a Sunday).

I don’t know how much of the urge to make a garden is encoded in my DNA and how much is the product of conditioning in childhood, but I do know the urge is real. It can be triggered by a number of environmental factors. This year the background was laid by global warming, which got things started blooming at least three weeks early. It was the second week of March, and I was standing out in the yard watching the buds swell on the Bradford pear tree when someone over across town turned on the carillon at St. Catherine’s and the bells started playing "People will say we’re in love." I looked around to where the garden used to be before we built our house, and there, leaning on the gate was Shirley Jones, humming the Bowdlerized version of Tennyson’s poem as she watched Gordon MacRae come riding up Lincoln Avenue through a field of corn that was high as an elephant’s eye. The urge to make a garden would have overwhelmed a much stronger man than I, so I forgot about whatever I had intended to do that day and headed for the shed where my garden tractor hibernates. The aged machine started without putting up too much of a fight, and I plowed the first third of the garden. Later that week, when St. Patrick’s Day arrived, the potatoes were planted in accord with 150 year’s-worth of family tradition.

Success in gardening has always been subject to the whims of the weather, and each year that seems to become more erratic. Last year we had a prolonged dry spell in midsummer, basically ruining my garden; then the fall was so wet that we ended up with over 20 inches more rainfall than average. So far this year we are about 3 inches below our average rainfall, and the early onset of plant growth will speed up water loss from the soil unless rainfall increases. The stage is being set for problems with insects. I see a few bumblebees and other pollinators, but their populations are still low because of disease; meanwhile, the less beneficial insects are looking forward to a good year… bird populations seem to be down and bat populations are crashing because of the white-nose fungus disease. The southwestern part of the country has still not recovered from last year’s drought, heatwave and fires, and no improvement is in sight. The environment is in worse shape than the economy of Greece, but it is getting very few of the headlines.

Things don’t look good, but Emmitsburg is still a good place to be. The Great Depression was at its worst when I was born, and Grandma taught me to hope, and to look for signs. King Solomon probably had someone else to dig his garden for him while he wrote the prototypical poem to spring: "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Those words, written in Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago, are a good description of the state of things now. We could still get snow, but probably won’t; winter is past. Crocuses, daffodils, forsythia, and several kinds of flowering trees decorate my yard, having appeared on the earth several weeks ahead of schedule this year, and, walking to the Post Office today, I saw at least a dozen species of wild flowers in bloom. Juncos and white-throated sparrows are singing as they lay on body fat to sustain their migration back to the north, and two fine male towhees appeared at my feeder today, having just arrived from the south. We don’t have real turtle doves, but the mourning doves are trying to sing… a poor effort, to be sure, but they’re doing their best. And so must the rest of us. As Lorenz Hart said, you can hear that spring is here.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith