Spring Swale

Fri, 03/20/2015 - 8:45am

The list of things wrong with my old house is one people who have long lived in old houses can well understand — although after this winter of no frozen pipes I am hesitant to complain about the lack of closets and limited electrical outlets. 

Then there are all the nights I climb the narrow stairs and find myself in an odd little room awash with light, be it the full moon, or only the illumination of a sliver cast off the snow of this past winter, or the crazy white beams from fishing boats offshore. Sometimes it is the punctuation of the lights of the harbor, and the south end of the island rising above it, pinpoints of color bordered by flashes that speak of different centuries: red, a signal warning of the top of the tower at the power company, and green, the old navigational aid marking the southeast corner of the island.

When it is clear, or even when the lights are blurred by rain on the glass of the south-facing windows, I believe — regardless of any forecast — that I will be awakened by the sun coming out of the ocean or from behind hills between me and the sea depending upon the progression of the seasons. 

The nights it is foggy, when the windows are no more than blank surfaces slightly less dark than the walls around them, it is a surprise, almost disorienting, as though I am underground or encased in the dark gray cotton batting that can be a March sky. I somehow expect the fog to be a first-floor phenomenon, one I will escape climbing those 11 steep, old steps.  

One day during last week's thaw, I went upstairs and heard a great whoosh, ice falling in those days of calm sun, I thought for a millisecond, before recognizing the familiar and so easily forgotten sound of the wind. 

It is another of those things I tell visitors all summer, of this omni-present wind ceasing for a day and it a gift from God, and by the end of the second day of calm it is as forgotten as a pain remembered only in the abstract. Then it returns, always, it sounds and feels, with a vengeance, sweeping and howling. 

Spring arrives this week. There are still piles of dirty snow, plowed into place, but it is the bands of white at the edges of the fields, the places snow is blown by the wind, where it collects and remains beyond the reach of the sun, that are true markers. Boston, we hear, has broken the snowfall record set in the winter of 1995-96, no small source of regional pride, up there with either the Patriots' Super Bowl win or the Red Sox eighty-six year losing streak.  

It is cold, again, after a thawing weekend, a time of rain and softening earth, which sounds better than the reality of a mushy yard, of walking on shredded wheat left too long sitting in milk. It has been a very long time since the area was clear. The ground froze before a rain and standing water could not be absorbed before it froze into solid puddles. So it has been this winter, ice or ice covered snow, or slush waiting to turn solid yet again. 

The snow and ice are gone, a miracle but for the bits and pieces of branches that were ripped free by the fall and winter winds and quickly covered, now resurfaced. The holes the dog dug, out of sight for so long, did not magically disappear while they were full of ice and protected by a blanket of white. 

The poor little snowdrops that resolutely poked through the earth in January, the tiny white flowers that have bloomed only to be covered with a glaze of February ice other years, are still in waiting, tiny white buds that may be upstaged by the daffodils that must have broken through when snow still lay upon them. I fret that the forsythia was cut too soon last summer and will not recover, but remind myself it is older than I, and it is only the middle of a late-coming March. 

Autumn does not want to come in from the north lot, at last free of snow but for around the edges, more of those will-be-here-until-summer bands hiding under the brush. She barks and barks and finally I go out, annoyed at her heedlessness of my calling her. 

There is a single deer on the other side of the swale, simply standing, watching her. Autumn deigns to look back at me, then, reinforced, takes a tiny jump forward and barks, again, a process she repeats several times as I walk closer. The deer watches, swishes its tail and takes a bite of dry grass, perhaps accustomed to this nuisance. Finally, it turns and runs into the brush, likely put off by my presence more than this loud golden creature. 

The dog starts back toward me, detouring to bark at two pairs of ducks swimming where there is not water most of the year. The birds — the bane of every one of my dogs' existence —  take to wing only when Autumn begins to splash into the tiny vernal pond.

There is more cold rain forecast but today the sun is shining and there are only two puddles in the unpaved barnyard. I have found a use for those old towels that otherwise belong in the dump; they are a pathway of doormats for my loves-the-mud-under-her-feet golden dog.

It is March, month of hopeful green shoots and budding daffodils and mud. It has never been more than a pretender, despite owning the vernal equinox. March is always a roller coaster, almost a springback to winter. It seems endless and brown and then there comes that day when the new grass will no longer be denied and whatever horrid weather may come does not matter, spring — albeit Block Island spring — has arrived.