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Of lambs and lions and armadillos

Bill Meredith

"Spring, spring, spring! It's a beautiful thing! It's welcome after winter; And in summer's sun I will have fun in a place I haven't binter..." - Churchy LaFemme

(4/2016) Grandma always used to tell me to make a note whether March came in like a lamb or a lion, so I would know how to plan my garden schedule for the year. She knew such things were important, and I’ve always tried to follow her instructions; but as I grow older, it seems to get harder, or at least more confusing. This year, March tried to appear on a Monday, but it had to wait because this is Leap Year, and Monday was the 29th of February. That may have fooled some creatures of the human persuasion, but no one else in the world of nature fell for it; ecologically, it was March. When I got up that morning it was overcast and windy; during breakfast, the sun came out and the wind calmed; an hour later the sky was full of clouds, in every shade of blue and gray that Leonardo ever imagined; and then we had a 15-minute shower. By lunchtime, the sun was out again. It felt like a very old, fat lion and a wobbly newborn lamb were running around in circles, and you couldn’t tell who was chasing whom.

I thought about it all day, and decided not to intervene; and sure enough, things got straightened out all by themselves. Before the week was over, the spring peepers had started singing and the first crocuses bloomed. I got the hedge trimmed before the leaves started budding, and got a row of potatoes planted on St. Patrick’s Day, thanks to help from four small friends. A few timid forsythia blossoms began to appear, and daffodils bloomed the week before Easter, just like they did in Grandma’s yard when I was three. Spring got off to a beautiful start.

Deafness makes a difference in how you perceive beauty. On mornings when I forgot to insert my hearing aids before I went out to get the paper, there was a silence almost like you get after a big snow, when there is no traffic noise and everything seems new and peaceful. There was one day almost like that, when we got just enough snow to coat the trees and cover the sidewalk; and when I went out it was quiet, the wind was calm, and the sidewalk was covered with mouse tracks. Evidently the field mice were enjoying spring, and love was in the air. I followed one set of tracks which zig-zagged down the walk, stopping to sniff at a sunflower seed here and a dandelion sprout there, until it met another set of tracks from the opposite direction. Apparently the two chatted each other up a bit, and ambled off together toward the shelter of the boxwood bush.

On other days, when my ears were properly amplified I could hear flocks of geese heading north in V-formation, and songs that told me the white-throated sparrows were beginning to feel amorous. Woodpeckers had the same emotions, and they tried to sing, but they’re tone-deaf and can’t carry a tune… but they don’t seem to mind. Nature has assigned them to the percussion section, where the males can beat out rhythms that females find as seductive as Sinatra at his best, and it works… the species gets perpetuated every year. I guess they think if drumming was good enough for Gene Krupa, it’s good enough for them.

Officially, spring started on the 20th this year. That morning was clear and breezy, and the two turkey vultures that live in the old haunted house next door woke up early. When I went to get the paper, they were gliding around in circles; they would face into the wind and rise upward without moving a wing, and then turn with the wind and come zooming downward like teenagers riding skateboards in traffic… and then, glide back up again, without flapping. It looked like fun. My wife doesn’t like them because she thinks they’re ugly, and seen close up, I have to agree; but on the wing, they’re as graceful as ballerinas. It could be that, in their own eyes, they’re beautiful. When I was little, the ugliest people I’d ever seen were an old couple who went to our church back in West Virginia. I actually was afraid of them, and couldn’t understand how anyone that ugly could be in love, but they were quite devoted to each other, and were widely respected in the community. Grandma explained it to me in a way a four-year-old could understand; it was the first time I ever heard the expression that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." It was a good lesson; it stuck in my mind and helped me understand the world a little better as I grew up. I still think of it every time I see turkey vultures.

So far, spring is off to a pleasant start. The temperature gets up in the 60s, and I sit out in the yard and think rambling, idle thoughts like those I’ve just mentioned; but then, inevitably, I start thinking about time. March is 3/4 past, and April will be here soon; in other words, a fourth of this year has already slipped by. There was a time when when my reaction to this would have been "Thank goodness… it seemed to take forever." I suppose I thought that way most of my life; it seemed as if I was young for a long time. Time went by slowly in those days, and I wasted a lot of it. When I get to thinking about this, I always remember Isaac Asimov, who wrote over 500 books in his lifetime; someone asked him what he would do if he had only six months left to live, and he replied, "Write faster." It was a witty response, but at my stage in life it can’t serve as advice; doing anything faster is not an option.

The main regret is that I didn’t read more. I seem to think of this every year at about this time. As Spring approaches, I always think of T. S. Eliot’s poem, "The Waste Land," which was the most important poem of the 20th Century, according to scholars who know such things. I had never read it, but I knew the first line said "April is the cruellest month," so I decided this would be a good time to look it up. It wasn’t in any of my old English books, and now I know why. I found it on the internet; it is 433 lines long, and just leafing through it I saw phrases in Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian and Sanskrit… and the English was almost as incomprehensible. The internet version was followed by seven pages of explanatory notes, but they didn’t help much; even after reading translations of some of the foreign language passages, I couldn’t understand them.

But, I’m glad I tried. When you get to this age, you need to be reminded once in a while that you aren’t as smart as you were beginning to believe. So I went back to Walt Kelly for something more on my level. Churchy LaFemme, the turtle who lived in the Okeefenokee Swamp, was a carefree poet who sang his own compositions while accompanying himself on a recorder, and one fine day he sang the verse quoted above. Albert the Alligator told him he sounded worse than an Armadillo trying to sing, but Churchy was undeterred; he figured it’s a free country, and Armadillos should be allowed to sing if they want to. That made me feel better.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith