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A Runcible Season

Bill Meredith

"They dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon."
…Edward Lear, "The Owl and the Pussycat."

"When I use a word, it means whatever I want it to mean, neither more nor less."
…Humpty Dumpty, in Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.

(April, 2013) The coming of spring has strange effects on those who inhabit the natural world. The Frederick Post recently reported that a couple of tom turkeys have started expressing their testosterone-induced territorial instincts by trying to chase people away from a local church. The article in the paper did not make clear whether the turkeys were atheists who were trying to prevent people from attending, or if they wanted to join the church themselves, but it certainly seemed to be a unique and fascinating event. In fact, as I reflected on it, my imagination took over, and before long it conjured up images of the old church I attended as a child, with a herd of angry turkeys chasing elderly ladies dressed in their Sunday best off through the cemetery and into the woods. Words like "unique" and "fascinating" were clearly not adequate to describe a scene like that; something better was called for. From somewhere in the depths of my memory, the word "runcible" volunteered to accept the challenge.

"Runcible" was introduced into the English language in the mid-19th Century by Edward Lear. He was an artist, and as a young man in those days before photography, he was hired by the London Zoological Society to illustrate a book about parrots. While working there he was befriended by the Earl of Derby, and wrote his first book, a collection of illustrated limericks and nonsense poems, for the Earl’s grandchildren. Later, he traveled about Europe painting landscapes and wrote several more volumes of poetry, one of which included "The Owl and the Pussycat." It became one of the stories and nursery rhymes that were read to children of my generation at bedtime. My contemporaries will recall that the unlikely couple sailed off to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, fell in love, and after sailing around for a year and a day they landed on an island, where they were married. The marriage ceremony was performed by a turkey, and for their wedding feast, "they dined on mince, with slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon."

To a child of four, a story like that did not seem preposterous at all. Primed by tales about Uncle Wiggly the Rabbit Gentleman and his companion, Nurse Jane the Muskrat Lady, or the song about Mr. Froggy who went a-courting Miss Mousie, and unaware of the complications that would arise from such unions, it did not seem remarkable to me that an owl and a cat should get married. But it did bother me that no one seemed to know what "runcible" meant. It was not until several years later that I read about Alice’s trip through the Looking Glass and her conversation with Humpty Dumpty, that "runcible" suddenly made sense. However, by that time I had learned about sex, so the matter of owls and cats getting married had become a moot question, and I was left with a new and potentially useful word in my vocabulary.

So, back to the present. It is spring, and all sorts of things are starting to happen. The days are getting longer by about 17 minutes each week. It was a mild winter, but it did get cold enough for the ground to freeze, and it turned my yard to mud when it thawed, just as it always has done. Down in the mud, the shriveled roots of last year’s grass detected the lengthening days and started sending up new green sprouts. Dormant crocus bulbs responded to the light in a similar manner, as did daffodils and tulips. All over the garden, seeds too small for the unaided eye to see germinated and sent up sprouts that covered the area with tiny blue Veronica blossoms. The goldfinches that come to my feeder each morning are starting to turn yellow, and the white-throated sparrows are beginning to sing "Old Sam Peabody," their courting song. A friend just told me the mourning doves already have a nest with eggs in it by his porch. Of course we will still have cold nights and even possibly snow for a while; but spring is coming… just as it always has.

When I was a child, my grandmother taught me to call these things miracles, and since by definition miracles are unexplainable, she was right. In those days no one understood how they happened. But science has progressed with amazing speed in the past 75 years, and long before I retired I was routinely explaining the phenomena of spring to students in my introductory classes. Of course, there are details we still don’t fully understand about the changes spring brings to animals and plants, but we know too much about them to call them miracles any more. This bothers some people; but to me, being able to explain things does not make them any less amazing or wonderful than they were when I was four.

I have reached the age when, if I was ever going to attain wisdom, it should have happened by now. But it appears that either it didn’t happen, or if it did, no one noticed. My mental facilities are teetering precariously between obsolescence and senility. So to make the best of it, perhaps I may be allowed to invent words to describe events that are not miracles but are nevertheless amazing, beautiful, or delightful to the spirit. So I’ve decided to call them Runcible Events. It is not original on my part; years ago, John Richards, who became my mentor when I was young and in need of such an influence, delighted me by referring to the song of the first house wren as a Runcible Melody. So when the first hummingbird arrives, even though physiologists have measured the number of calories in its body fat and proved that it does indeed have the capacity to fly all the way across the Caribbean without stopping, it will still be a Runcible Journey. Let the critics complain if they wish; Lewis Carroll said I could do it if I want to, and the English language needs some new words that were not invented by teenagers in California. Edward Lear would be delighted.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith