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Appreciating SpringÖ with a cautionary note

Bill Meredith

"Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants." Ö Dorothy Parker.

"Spring has again returned. The Earth

is like a child that knows many poems,

many, o so many . . . . For the hardship

of such long learning she receives the prize."

ÖRainer Maria Rilke, " Sonnets to Orpheus," XXI.

(5/2) By the time you read this, May will be here, and I donít know if Iím ready for it. I enjoyed April, and I feel a little guilty about it, for most of the rest of the world had little to enjoy. In the past two weeks there were major earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador, more refugees drowned in the Mediterranean, floods in Texas, severe droughts in Venezuela and Africa, suicide bombings in Afganistan, economic chaos in Brazil, Zika virus lurking on our southern borderÖ to say nothing of the foreboding political campaigns in our country. But here in Emmitsburg, spring has been as normal as it gets.

I guess there are two ways to look at it. I know some people who would agree with Dorothy Parker. She was a city girl, which may explain but doesnít excuse her misanthropic point of view. She was probably sitting at the Algonquin Round Table with drinks in both hands, trading barbs with Robert Benchley and James Thurber, and she wouldnít have known how to tell a pigeon from an English sparrow. On the other hand, Rainer Rilke had one of the most melancholy faces Iíve ever seen, but such a way with words! What could have inspired him to compare the earth in springtime to a child who knows poems? When I read that I remembered my grand-daughter when she was just the size of Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two. My son told her to say her poem for me, and she stood up on a kitchen chair and recited,

"I eat my peas with honey;

Iíve done so all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny,

But they donít roll off my knife."

That was nearly 30 years ago, and I no longer remember what season that was or what the weather was like; but there in the kitchen that day the sun was shining and it was spring.

This winter was mild, and a lot of the small birds didnít come as far south as usual; there were no tree sparrows, pine siskins or red-breasted nuthatches at my feeder. And now, spring migrants are showing up a few days early; in mid-April my wife surprised me by spotting a towhee and a brown thrasher in the yard, although she didnít know what they were. Killdeer, meadowlarks, tree swallows and red-winged blackbirds are on the golf course, and none of them are yapping; they are singing on key, and a few of them announce their names in English, like the phoebes and chickadees. The chimney swifts arrived on schedule after flying all the way from Argentina, non-stop, and they donít even seem tired. After all, itís spring.

We who are older can still enjoy most of the Spring-childís poems, but some of them become a bit wistful. About 40 species of warblers are known to migrate through this area, and over the years, with the help of friends, I have seen 36 of them. This year, I see a flash of blue or yellow in the treetops, and occasionally catch a whispered phrase of song; but I can no longer see or hear well enough to identify them.

It has been a good season for watching plants. Iíve seen Spring Beauties, Dutchmanís Breeches, Dog-tooth Violets and Bluebells in all of their usual habitats where the deer population is not too excessive; but in many other places they are becoming rare because of deer and competition by alien species such as garlic mustard and English Ivy. And their "usual habitats" are becoming smaller as residential and economic developments expand.

It used to be that as you walked in the woods or drove along country roads you would see small trees covered with pink or white flowers in the understory beneath the taller trees. The pink ones were Redbud, and they are still abundant; deer do not eat them, and they are so tough that they even take root in the bare, rocky soil along new roads. Some of the white ones were Dogwoods; they are becoming scarce because of a fungus disease. The other white ones, which had smaller lacy flowers, were called Shadbush or Serviceberry. In the old days, when you saw the first shadbush blooming you would hurry home and hitch up the horses, load the wife and kids into the wagon with enough food for a week, and head off east for the Shenandoah River. When you got there, the shad would be running, and everyone would fish until the barrels in the wagon were filled with shad and roe, packed securely in salt. I donít think many people do that any more. The shad still run, but in much smaller numbers; and the shadbush trees are becoming rare. There are many reasons; overgrazing by deer, fewer woodlots as developments expand, competition by invasive plants, and so on. Last week I found a shadbush along a stream while I was looking for an errant golf ball, and for a moment the sun came out a little brighter and I thought of going home and loading up the wagonÖ.

All over my yard there are flowers no one planted; violets, veronicas, shepherdís purse, ground ivy, and chickweed are so small many eyes donít even see them. Celadine, dandelions and garlic mustard are aliens and rightly called weeds, but they are performing a useful function; my friend, Jerome, who is 18 months old, can point to them and say "flower" and he knows some of them are "lellow." Spring is a great time to learn, and I wonít be surprised if he knows some poems before long.

As April slipped away, it took with it another Earth Day. Rilkeís verse tells us that the earth learns long, hard lessons from the poems of passing seasons. Age reminds me of this. I used to be able to notice birds and flowers along the roads as I drove, without endangering life and limb. I drive less now; with traffic more crowded, noisier and faster, it is no longer safe to look at things. Recently I went to Frederick, and was appalled by the amount of construction along the road. When we came to this area in 1957, there were either woodlands or well-tended family farms all along Route 15, and in the distance you could see a healthy forest covering the mountains. Now, there are a few large farms, and they are rapidly being replaced by developments as heavy machinery removes or destroys what was once productive soil. If you dare to take your eyes off the road long enough to glance at the mountain, you see large areas where the trees have been killed by gypsy moths. So I did not enjoy the trip; instead, I thought of Rilkeís metaphor and the lessons the world has learned. The earth has gone through five episodes of extinction, those hard lessons Rilke spoke of; and ecologists are trying to tell deaf ears and blind eyes that another hard lesson is coming.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith