The coming of spring was on my mind all of last week.  There were so many signs of it, I could not have ignored them even if I had wanted to.  I did not want to.  The anticipation that comes immediately on the heels of the bitter trial of winter is a commonly shared human emotion.  When the first cold winds of winter come tumbling in from the north, most of us will not allow our minds to think of spring's pleasures.  They are too far away.  There is too much yet to go through as we see everything around us begin to shed, darken, and recede toward dormancy.  Spring is only an image to us, distorted by a barren landscape.  It is an image that brings no succor when the withering cold invades our very souls.

     During the winter months, I console myself with seed catalogs.  There is irony in this since I plant no garden here.  The pictures of robust tomatoes, succulent squash, bulbous onions, obese eggplants, and dangling snap peas kindle my imagination.  In those pictures, I can smell the dirt and feel on my fingers the grainy texture of the soil.  Let the winter winds howl like the big bad wolf.  I am fine in my house, with dogs, cats, and wife as companions, all of us soaking up the woodstove heat and me armed with my seed catalogs.  I can read the signs of passing winter like tea leaves in a cup by merely counting the "coffee rings" on the catalogs' covers.

     Enough of this talk about winter.  It is spring I want to talk about.  The surest sign of spring for me is not the return of specific bird species, budding trees, warmer days, or the sport in fashion at the time.  It comes while driving the back roads and seeing the freshly plowed plots of those who do ply the trade of gardener.  The size of the plowed area is of no consequence.  What is important to me is the color of freshly turned earth in rectangle pattern and smooth surfaces free of clods or clumps.  Surely it is a picture worthy of a thousand words with all the words comprising a hymn to spring.

     I drive slowly past these plots and savor the scene, for in each is the whole truth nature indifferently bestows upon us.  In the grip of seeming desolution, the earth remains fertile.   Winter always gives way to spring.  There is great comfort in that truth, at least as much as can be found in the tenets of religious lore.

     Then came this past Saturday morning when I awoke to find snow on the ground, ice weighing down the fragile limbs of the trees, and the most bitter north wind blowing I have seen the whole winter.  It is just like nature to do this when thoughts of spring had cautiously begun to sprout.  I find that she is often like an irritating practical joker whose sense of humor escapes me.  It is the Yin and Yang thing.  Yeah for he Yin! Watch out for the Yang!

     E.O. Wilson puts it well in his new book, "The Future of Life":

         "Of course nature has a dark side too.  The face it presents to humanity
     is not always friendly.  Throughout most of human deep history there have
     been predators eager to snatch us for dinner; venomous snakes ready with
     a fatal, defensive strike to the ankle; spiders and insects that bite, sting, and
     infect; and microbes designed to reduce the human body to malodorous
     catabolic chemicals.  The reverse side of nature's green-and-gold is the
     black-and-scarlet of disease and death."

     I pulled myself out of bed, put on yesterday's clothes, and layered them with another one.  This kind of weather changes everything.  When I let the dogs out, they all dashed out as always, only to stop in their tracks before they left the porch.  I watched as they stood for a few seconds, assessing the tempest.  Their noses only turned upward for a few seconds before they all three made their way back to the door, choosing the hearth over the hunt.  I scoffed at their lack of resolve, opened the door for them, and then stepped out myself.

     The wind must have been blowing 30-to-40 mph with an accompanying howl that only added unease to my discomfort.  The temperature was on the negative side of the teems and bore deeply into bone and marrow as I watched the snow whip in vast waves over the terrain.  I quickly went back inside and put on another layer of clothes.  When again I made my way outside, I looked back at the dogs.  None of them moved.   I was obviously on my own.

     Fortunately, the day before, I had bought 11 bags of birdseed:  five bags of oil-filled sunflower, five of a nut-millet-sunflower mix, and one of thistle.  Hefting the heavy bags to the feeders over the treacherous surface of snow honed slippery with a glaze of ice added a degree of difficulty to the task that even a French Olympic skating judge would have appreciated.  The feeders were iced over.  I chipped away at them before securing a clean enough surface for the fresh offering of food.

     When finally I was back in the house and at my desk, I sat and waited for whatever would appear.  I knew it was going to be quite a show.  Species of birds that most often hold feeders in disdain would forget their fear or pride and make their way to them like supplicant pilgrims.  Added to the usual mix were White-throated, White-crowned, Harris's, and Fox Sparrows.  A Spotted Towhee scraped at the frozen snow under one feeder, obviously hoping to dislodge a morsel or two of fallen seed when abundance was available to him a few inches above.  So it goes with pride.

     Two Cowbirds showed up, by far the best dressed for the occasion with their dark but shiny bodies and iridescent brown heads.  They joined the mix of several hundred other birds like a free-for-all at a bikers' convention.  The competition was fierce, posturing exaggerated, and intent single-minded and serious.  Every bird seemed intent to eat, horde, or protect as much food as they could.  They knew instinctively that what they consumed that day would increase the probability of their survival through the night.  Three times that day, I filled the feeders, going through over a 100 pounds of seed.

     I watched the whole day as every bird put forth maximum effort to survive this last gasp of winter.  Anytime the dogs or I ventured out, we did the same.  When facing south, the dogs kept their tails down.  When facing north, it ws their heads they kept dipped.  Me, I just covered everything that was flesh, limited my time of exposure, and scurried for cover when retreat trumped valor.

     Just the day before, I had seen two Tufted Titmice cavorting in one of the small trees by the feeders.  The male would take a seed, fly to the female who was doing her flirtation routine, and beak-to-beak feed her the seed.  They put on quite a show that lasted for almost 30 minutes.  I have also noticed that the male Cardinals no longer try to chase the female Cardinals away from the feeders.  There is a definite improvement of manners between the genders.  Then there were the Robins singing away in the trees.  Sweet is their song though lustful its intent.

     Saturday's storm put on hold all that spring-induced affection.  It was every bird for itself.  Eat as much as you possibly can and what you cannot eat, either hoard or protect.  All day was played out in energetic endeavor of feeding with momentary lulls for flight from supposed danger.  No one fed another.  Such seeming charity of will disappeared with all the other signs of spring's return.

     I know, however, that beneath the snow and ice, those freshly plowed plots are still there.  The sun will be back, temperatures will rise, and the rich, red earth will again reappear.  My father once said to me, "Growing up on the farm, come early spring, you got so hungry for something beside smoked meats and home-canned vegetables.  It was green you wanted.  Your stomach hungered for it.  Your eyes hungered for it."  Well put.  A wise man.  I seem to have inherited his hunger and find myself this Sunday morning insatiable.  The sun is out, making both the dogs and me squint from the reflected glare.  Footprints of birds, cats, dogs, squirrels, and myself are frozen solid and perfect in the snow like those of prehistoric animals having trekked through ancient mudflats, leaving the eternal evidence of their presence.  Our prints, unlike theirs, will fade away under the sun's incessant watch.  I, for one, will gladly endure the loss of yesterday's tracks for the abundance I know that lies beneath.
Edge of the Earth Rd. Journal
"Signs of Spring"
March 4, 2002
"On the approach of spring I withdraw without reluctance from the noisy and extensive crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure."

Edward Gibbon, "Memoirs, Vol. 1"
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