Sunday, May 5, 2013

Before the leaves

Of all the things I love about spring, the best is the way the land comes alive before the leaves break out.

In November/December—a.k.a. “Stick Season”—you get to see the contours of the landscape through the trees, but everything is brown and gray and shriveling. In April/May, you get the same long views and revealed features while the land turns progressively more colored.

During one season, the living world is contracting; during the other, it’s expanding back into life. So although the scenery is technically the same, one season brings dismay and the other inspires joy.

Then there’s the light. In spring it gets stronger by leaps and bounds, and a sunny day is bedazzling. Whereas in fall, each day gets dimmer, faster, triggering the urge to dig in.

As the grasses slowly turn from beige-gold-mustard to lime and emerald, the flowers begin to stand up and shout. Yellows predominate: first coltsfoot, then daffodil and forsythia; with ground-hugging purples—crocuses, violets, myrtle—providing a near backdrop, while afar the hillsides acquire a mauvish tint signaling no more maple sugar.

Then come the secretive plants, which lurk under shrubs and in the forest’s humus, only blooming during the brief window between frost and leaf-out. These are the lovely wine-colored trilliums, and purple-speckled yellow trout lilies, and white-star bloodroots, along with uncurling ferns.

Each week, a new wave of songbirds returns, and wood or pond frogs emerge, to add musical accompaniment. One day you turn around to find that the grass needs mowing, insects have become bothersome, perennials are growing inches each day, and tender beauties like azalea opened up their bright hues overnight. Trees are so lushly budded that you expect to hear popping noises when they all unfold.

Everything happens within a few short weeks, regardless of weather. Suddenly lilacs and fruit trees are blooming and it’s time to put in the vegetable garden. Poof! Spring is over, and a green canopy covers the land.

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