Last April, in a post about early spring, I wrote, “Fact is, spring will always find you. There is no repressing spring, no stopping it. It is a promise that is always kept. It is a wish that always comes true. How many things in life are like that?”
What a different April we found ourselves in this year. Michiganders are under orders to stay at home, with few exceptions. It was illegal to visit one's up-north cottage or vacation rental for several weeks. And the National Park Service has closed trails, trailheads, parking lots, and picnic areas at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore until further notice. Now is not the time to be traveling.
And yet, despite these crazy times, my words from last year are more relevant than ever. “There is no repressing spring…” Spring does not care about our human travails. It does not care if you are sad or happy. It bursts from the earth in a raucous spectacle, regardless of whether you’re in the mood for it or not. So…I would recommend being in the mood for it!
Rather than feature a certain trail or offer hiking tips and tricks as I normally do, I’d like to use this post as a chance to meditate on spring, and talk about what it’s like to be experiencing spring during the pandemic. Won’t you join me on a little spiritual "hike?"
Early spring is my favorite time of year, my favorite thing in the world, because it’s so freakin’ exhilarating. I’m constantly on the edge of my seat, with the sight of the first robin; the first neon-green sprouting moss; the first sight of countless larvae swimming in a vernal pool; the first cathartic chorus of peepers; the first baby ramps and meadow rue and trout lilies and trillium piercing through the soil; the first blooming hepatica flowers; the first dutchman’s breeches; and yes, the first morel mushroom. My new year’s resolution was to keep a log of which day I experienced each of the springtime “firsts.” (e.g. 4/1/20: First ramps and peepers.) But I’m already falling behind! The problem is, it happens too rapidly. There’s a breathless succession of firsts that happens in a matter of…two weeks? These early firsts are the vanguard, the revolutionaries storming the Bastille.
And then the firsts just keep coming — violets, marsh marigolds, lady’s slippers, jack-in-the-pulpits, doll’s eyes, ghost pipes — until finally, in the dog days of summer, we reach a kind of stasis, and nature’s curve seems to flatten (to use an unfortunate topical phrase). But for a good four months, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. And the same trail you visited four days ago might look a lot different today. You’ll mutter to yourself “I was just here four days ago, and that new thingy wasn’t here!” Or, “I was just here four days ago, and now that thingy I loved is past its prime!”
Ah, and that’s an important lesson to be learned from nature. Something’s always perishing, and something’s ascendant. Death and birth exist alongside each other. Even in seeming gloom, there are stubborn mischievous flickers of light which are “a promise that is always kept….a wish that always comes true.”
Allow me to go on a bit of a tangent. I recently re-watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It takes place during a plague. But even as the plague is spreading, there’s a young family with a toddler who’s living his best toddler life, and there are wild strawberries being plucked, and lovers loving, and songs being sung. In this great film, the macabre is frequently juxtaposed with irrepressible life, sometimes in the same frame.
We’re dealing with a bizarre “juxtaposition” these days, an absurd contrast between two incongruous things. On the one hand, we’re confronting a historic crisis, and many families are facing hardship, and worse. On the other hand…it’s springtime! Wildflowers are starting to bloom! Birds are chirp-chirp-chirping!
How to square these two circles? You can vaguely resent spring this year, and deep down think it’s callous for going about its springiness with no regard for human suffering. Or you can take an escapist route, and lose yourself in gardening, hiking, foraging, and delighting in a sunny view of nature. I would suggest a third way. I would suggest a bittersweet appreciation of this particular spring as a poignant reminder of how life and life’s nemesis are forever locked in a waltz. They’re partners. And sometimes one dance partner leads, and then they switch and the other partner leads. But they’re inseparable.
Permit me one more tangent. There are two canonical passages about April in English literature. One is Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which begins, “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote.” (“When April, with his sweet showers”). The other is the start of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land…” These are two opposing visions of spring — one sweet, one bitter — and you may choose either one during this pandemic. Or, as I suggest, you can choose bittersweetness, and feel some combination of thrill and regret, of glee and empathy, of renewal and elegy, and try your darnedest to wrap your heart around the mysteries of the human and natural world. Of course, that’s impossible. But your heart can at least try.
Indeed, it was nature that created the current crisis. Simultaneously, it is nature that is gifting us the sight of adorable wildflowers, and the songs of frogs, and the promise of feasting on ramps and morels. Nature torments us and nurtures us. And in the end, despite it all, we love and revere her. Unconditionally.