SPRING HAS NOT YET SPRUNG
The weather here reminds me of Robert Eggers’ recent film, The Lighthouse, about a world of gloomy overcast skies and penetrating New England cold. There is no sea nearby, but I can feel the sodden inertia of this hinge season, with tiny sprouts struggling to endure the chill while pushing up their green banners into the indifferent air. I dutifully armor myself with an old cardigan, now partly unraveled at the button holes and sprung at the elbows, but serviceable as another layer of skin against the funereal stillness of the yard. If only the sun would assert itself and illuminate the soggy world. But I suspect even the sun is relaxing on a beach somewhere in Florida, sipping a tall drink and chatting with the tourists. Why hang around us moping Vermonters as we rake up rotten leaves and prune a few wiry bushes before spring explodes? Everyone’s busy sorting, rearranging piles in the garage, poring over the worthless accumulations of stuff from months of neglecting the transfer station down the road. There are cartons and two crates full of empty wine bottles, an elongated paste board box that held our new Sony TV, now looking damp after the nearly constant rains of the past week. Can’t wait to haul it off, and empty a few buckets of ashes from our fires. The floor of the garage is littered with bark, pine needles from the Christmas tree, empty cans with their lids pushed in, paper bags and other detritus from a life mostly lived indoors.
At the back of the garage is a wall of other boxes, most of them hastily packed with aging lecture notes, office memos, offprints of my colleague’s articles, booklets, the remains of a long career in an English Department, with all those tedious agendas of faculty meetings, files of student papers and blue books, things I should have had the courage to toss out rather than shove into the back of a Ryder truck bound for Vermont. But I didn’t want to say goodbye to it all. I was hoping that this was not the real beginning of retirement and old age. Closing my office was not exactly painful, but perhaps mournful. I kept gazing around the now empty walls, the dusty window sills, the desk with its mysteriously blinking telephone. It was a Saturday and no one was around to say goodbye, thank god. I wanted to leave quietly, without emotion. To just pull out of the loading dock in the hulking truck I was driving and round the corner, let the towering building suddenly lose focus in my rearview mirror. It was another hinge season, between the tense, rivalrous mayhem of academic life and the expanses of road ahead of me, the slowly changing architecture of small towns and farms as the East coast loomed before me.
Even the rivers seemed to give way to an older, more sedate culture near the beginnings of European settlement. The water was dark, full of historic murmurs and tiny glints of ideas never to be realized. There were rickety picket fences wandering over the trim little hills, the grass darker green and lush. The churches all turned white with needle-sharp steeples, as if intended to pierce an unresponsive sky and wake up heaven. All that is fading away into the mist as I look around my yard and sense that the past devours itself in snowfall and rain, in the constant scraping of the sky by some tireless carpenter’s trainee. Nothing left of the past but what the mind has safely tucked away in some unused corner.
Even so, this isthmus between winter and spring has its own secrets. I watch a field across the street for signs of wild turkey, or a family of crows hunting for the odd vole. But in gazing over at my neighbor’s hillside, I sense I am witnessing how a canvas grows into a painting, slowly at first, with touches of hesitant color here and there, and then with slashes of dark green spreading out as the brush is moved more confidently. Spring eases into the world as if it were on tiptoe, reluctant to make the slightest sound. The throb of life is just out of reach, below what the eye can perceive. Self-interest obscures the details, I suppose. The sky is imperturbable as the season establishes its momentary empire over the thawing ground.
My neighbor, whom I have not met though he has been living there for almost a year, is one of those characters out of E.A. Robinson or Frost’s poetry. You know, the old codger who invites his guest to have a drink with him, and pours himself wormwood. When asked why, he replies, because he will never be disappointed when he tastes the bitterness. My neighbor may not be this cynical, but he is content to live his life apart from society. His money comes from a lucrative trade in wild flowers, which he cultivates in his fields and hothouses. He supplies wedding companies with customized arrays of these flowers, which allows him to enjoy the good life. But he’s a loner, and his social world is limited to the occasional delivery truck that climbs the winding road to his house with something his wife has ordered. All I know of this man is that his daughters arrive from school breaks and ride their horses around the perimeter of the hill after a strip has been mowed for them. They sway in a leisurely rhythm as the horses lope contentedly, glad to be out of the barn and into the crisp, sunny weather. I’m glad this man keeps his life so private. I want to believe there is mystery in the plodding pace of daily routines. I hope he never tries to share his inner world with me. Let me imagine him sipping his sherry at night, rocking in a chair in his spacious living room, under the heavy beams of his ceiling. I want him to read Poe and laugh to himself, put his book on the table and go up to his bedroom, turn out the light and lie there in the sublime darkness of Vermont night, before easing into his first dream.
According to my other neighbor, who lives behind me, the woods are alive with stags and does, wild pigs, and a kingdom of otters and possums. He is a hunter who goes out with his sons and sits there in his blind waiting for the snap of twigs before aiming his rifle. When he gets his kill, he and the two sons pull the body out of the brush and hoist it up on a frame to let it dry out for two or three days. They will have cut out the guts and buried them, and now the huge animal stares at the ground with its great flanks hanging loosely from its body. It’s an odd sight to come upon, and the first time my wife and I happened on this frame, there were three huge stags hanging from hooks like some primal altar to a savage god. My neighbor belonged to some ancient tradition of hunters, and he was proud to tell me that he purchased the licenses for each of his children, and now grandchildren, at birth. The same with fishing licenses. Every way there is to live off the land, my neighbor is eager to participate. He stands there in his plaid shirt and muddy boots explaining the intricacies of his life to us, drawing us ever closer into his web of beliefs.
I lean against a tree and think about the terrors unfolding far away in the ruins of Lviv and Mariupol. The dead lie there in the streets of Bucha, and the train station is shattered from a Russian missile attack, where all those huddled women and children were praying for a train to take them safely out of the war zone. Here, we are waiting for the last geese to come back north, flying in their wavering chevrons in the sky. That is our chief spectacle in this placid place. But Ukraine was just as serene and bound to tradition as we are now. There is no protection against the threat of war. It could happen here, or anywhere. The human will feeds as much on malice as it does on charity. You can only pray that the nurture of the good is sufficient as you move through these sluggish days of cold and rain.