EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay appeared in the April 1974 issue of UpCountry Magazine.
By Joan Mills
Money and sophisticated thinking can accomplish wonders. In New York, for instance, they are acquisitive of spring, and so they have made it happen, already and entire. It’s bought and paid for (or charged to somebody’s account), and palpable.
But here in the country, we plain folk have only April, leaking down the rooftops.
The shop windows of Fifth Avenue are thickly grassed and banked with fragile flowers – plastic, but an answer of sorts to yearnings. Sloe-eyed, nippled mannequins pose, pelvis forward, in dresses of pink and white, trailing ribbons, deliciously confusing lust and innocence. The rain is happy reason for giddy umbrellas; sunshine is evoked by bikinis on display. Pretty girls click along in high-heeled sandals, even when they must turn up their collars against a sudden chill.
The fancy of young men there must already have been turned! At subway entrances, old men are selling daffodils by the bunch, and the girls carry the flowers in cones of green tissue, and peek at them with little smiles as they go. The flowers will fade overnight, in water glasses, clay jugs or silver vases, but the girls will go on flowering at Bonwit’s and Bloomingdale’s and everywhere.
The daffodils come from hothouses. We have no flowers in the country yet – only the hope – and rain, as I said, and patches of green.
In the city, there’s an Easter extravaganza at the Music Hall. Madison Square Garden is getting ready for elephants and acrobats. The first barefoot boy of the season has already sauntered down 42nd Street, a gipsy band around his hair, a guitar slung across his back and a job in a coffee house in prospect. Old women walk sore-footedly by, carrying packages from Macy’s, made embarrassed and proud by their new and improbable blonde wigs. There’s an organ grinder, and balloons, and the air smells of bus exhaust, Coty’s Muguet de Bois, and hot buttered popcorn.
Spring, by all the signs! But only in the city can one be so certain of the season. In the country, the issue is still in doubt. We cannot purchase proof of spring. What we have here is the mere best that God can do, which, as March runs into April, seems not to be much.
Where I live, God gives us mud in this season. We even have a time in April called Mud Week. Between the thaw and the rain, there’s mud almost anytime, but the Week is distinguished by being the one in which our kids are let out of school for spring vacation. No matter what the kids do to celebrate, they do it in mud.
For nine glorious days, in rain or faint sunshine, little boys play baseball in mud-slick, soupy pastures redolent of cow. Or they wallow in goop along riverbanks, fishing or snarling their lines or falling in. Little girls who do not care for mud (some do, of course) are pushed into it anyway. Dogs roll in it, or dig in it for last year’s bones. The big kids go joyriding, and on back roads sink to the hubcaps of their cars in mud.
And then? The cars must be rescued by elaborate and exhausting measures. The dogs are banished to the barn. The kids of every size, slimy as creatures from the Black Lagoon, hammer at back doors, pleading for food and amnesty. Mothers go mad, and washing machines are very agitated.
Where are the daffodils, the wildly caroling birds, the heat-daft honey bees, the sweet breezes and the Oz look of green, green, green?
Coming. As an article of faith, I tell you that all these are coming. Spring of lilt and perfection enjoyed in cities and on Easter cards has not arrived, and winter has not exactly gone. April is the interval that spans them, and it moves only as fast as nature allows. We watch, noticing every nuance that frustrates or beguiles.
Not always, but often, when spring is on the calendar, the earth is still covered with a crumple of lusterless old snow sinking away into lumps and ridges. Bleached weeds and grasses poke through, showing no sign of life. Bird calls are lonely and occasional. Gray rain falls and the dark rivers run ominously swift.
But there begins to be a faint edge of warmth on the enduring chill. It comes and goes and then persists. The ground softens between the puddles of melted ice and the pockets of grainy snow, and for a day or two gives off an odor that is musty-damp and sumptuous – the smell of earth! It mixes with the clear scent of rain-wet air, blending the first perfume of authentic spring. It is more evocative than violets; unpurchasable, unknown in any city; and it stirs an ancient, atavistic joy.
Fourteen years ago, I first stood on a doorstep in the country and realized that the curiously unfamiliar scent in the air was earth melt. Thaw. Spring.
Nine months before, my family and I had come to that house from the city, where winter was something snowplows tidily removed, furnaces overwhelmed, and walls shut out. But we found a different, real winter in the country, one for which neither we nor the house we’d bought were in any way prepared. The season moved in with us, surrounded us, lurked in the closets and burrowed in the cellar.
Cold lay siege to us. Snow buried our cars, crept in under the doors, melted down the chimney. Winter nibbled at our bones, paralyzed our plumbing, dashed to the ground the wires that delivered our power, snatched away our breath on bitter mornings. On certain howling nights, I understood how easily people could die of winter in the cold.
But even that implacable winter receded finally into something bleak and raw, but bearable. The day came that I sniffed thaw. And what I felt was primitive exultation: “I have survived!” The world was circling closer to the sun. There would be heat and light and life everywhere! And all those good things did come, slowly, slowly, as they always do in nature. The waiting was, and is still, suffused with hope and glad awareness.
It’s not uncommon that at this time of year the surface of the water-laden earth is glazed with ice, but my farmer neighbors, in confidence that summer is coming, are out anyway, plowing furrows between each lie, until the sun is full up, the glassy shards of broken winter. While we still shiver, the first seeds go in to rest and wait for warmth.
Crocuses pop up in miniature bravado, and then collapse under a belated dusting of snow. Time passes. One day while the ground is still spongy, the faintest possible haze of green appears where last year’s grass grew rampant. Trees are discernibly in bud. The first pale shoots of the larger flowering bulbs break the surface of the soil. Rabbits and woodchucks are out foraging, looking thin and hunger-driven. A skunk waddles in and out of the garage at night, pawing through the barrels for anything to live on. Deer step tentatively into the fringes of tilled acreage, searching for food. Until the green is everywhere, the creatures of the woods are still imperiled.
But we humans are fat with winter sloth and heavy foods. We’ll work it off. Annually amazed, we survey the havoc wrought by six months of harsh weather and concealing snow. How different our spring chores are here from the city simplicity of washing the windows, tossing moth balls in the cupboards and sweeping our own strip of sidewalk!
Here the chimney leaks and the roof is missing shingles. The septic tank is backing up into the cellar. The lawn is madly mulched with blackened leaves, raveled mittens, fallen branches, gravel flung there by February snow plows, and bits and pieces of the rake we mislaid last fall. The hedge is snarled with Kleenex that hasn’t yet bio-degraded. The soggy pages of an old New Yorker lie in rags near where the hammock hung in summer. The fence is sagging; the house needs paint. The shrubs are in tatters. We sweep out the leavings of mice, and the first flies come in and settle on the sugar bowl.
In the city, they are eating strawberries as big as plums, hastening June. We slog through April.
How agreeable is the gradual greening and warming, between the days of gray and cold! With every rain there is still mud, and the frost still comes with night. But the birds have stopped muttering and mumbling and uttering danger cries – they sing on gentle mornings. The landscape begins to be romantic, with mists adrift in the valleys and smoky green lying upon the hills. The sky is sometimes so high and blue and fine that perfect strangers smile at one another in the streets of town.
My sons go out in shirtsleeves, for dalliances with girls. My daughter wears an ardent, restless look and a new pink sweater. I open a window wide and lean out while a breeze lifts the curtain. I am full of nameless, middle-aged longings.
If I could just flee this laggard season and go to the city! I’d buy six dresses and three hats, yellow sandals, and an armload of anemones. I’d buy sophisticated kites for the boys and yards of slithery cloth for the girl, incense, and jars of English honey. I’d go to a sad movie for the sake of tears I don’t know what to do with here; choose diamonds from the Cartier’s window; search all the faces I see for one I know; eat elegantly and woefully alone.
I am better off in the country, chasing cobwebs and harboring the awful itch of April. I itch and wait. Not until the very end of April, the near edge of May, do I begin to see at last what I have waited for and now feel I deserve.
The grass is the purest green it will ever be, and the branches of the nearest trees are knobbed with leaf-cases stretched to their limit of containment. What I now perceive is that within hours, surely within another day, over miles and miles of countryside, the trees will be unfolding leaves of the frailest, newborn green.
Everywhere I look, there will be green – tinged with pink or amber or purple, but still green — a thousand tender shades of color, all green! There will be one grand sweep of green upon green upon airy, lovely green, shedding transparent light. In roadside artlessness and dooryard intimacy – green. Green upon the mountains; green dappling the sun-bright rivers; green life in new-rooted willow and in a last majestic tower of elm. On every tree a poignant wash of color will lie, overturning the heart, equal to all imaginings!
Spring comes in its own time, and is beautiful. Its flowers are fleeting, and so is the affecting clarity and brilliance of the greening. But the birds rejoice with singing, and honeybees swarm, and wasps float dreamily, and I am happy – humbled by innocence, replete with lack of want.
“Come to the city with me,” my best friend urges. Yes, I say; in a few weeks, yes. But not now. I don’t want to be anywhere now but where I am, experiencing and admiring the earth that is home. •