I didn't actually expect to see maidens dancing. It wasn't that sort of day -- a typical, overcast Massachusetts afternoon. The sky looked pleased with itself that it had somehow managed not to drizzle. Nor was the temperature calculated to bring out wood nymphs: a kind of neutral, winter's-end that provokes neither praise nor complaint. So it was just the three of us, my wife and I and our young puppy, alone in the wooded sanctuary.Skip to next paragraph
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Two of us strolled lazily, letting the thaw mellow the edges of our resistance to winter, letting the dampness uncurl the stiff rigidities of a long freeze. The third of us raced in horizontal (and, when he stepped on his collar , vertical) circles, no doubt reveling in a riot of amazing scents, and now and then returning to stamp upon the fringes of our jackets the pawprints of his approval. I'm not sure what he saw, haring off that way into the weeds and tripping sideways into puddles. But I solemnly affirm that there were no maidens dancing.
In fact, it wasn't even what Botticelli, in his marvelous painting of three women cavorting on the greensward, called "Primavera." The Italian word for "first spring," it seems to capture that pale, tenuous, yellow-transparent green of new leaves not yet grown dark in service to their boughs. It is a word that unavoidably reappears for me each spring, defining something at once temporary and ever-recurring.
That day, however, there wasn't much green at all, beyond those hardy bristlers we so aptly (but so much less musically) call "evergreens." But there was something else. I don't suppose Italian has the word "primarosso." But "look," Liz said, pointing off through the underbrush, "at how red it's gotten." We stood before a hillside of tall trees. Beneath them was a tangle of low, straggling brambles. They had neither leaf nor bud. But there they were, brightened up for spring in an authentic and glossy vermilion.
Now, I claim no expertise in things botanical. Not that I haven't an interest. I have done something in trees, so that I can tell an oak from a beech and take wild guesses among the birches. I have gathered my share of mosses, pored idly over the indexes of so-and-so's guide to wildflowers, and once helped make a nice collection of lichens. But taxonomy has always eluded me: the names (especially the leisurely Latinate ones) slip away as easily as dry leaves across ice. And to lack names, I have long held, is to lack awareness. To be incapable of defining distinctions -- how often I used to say so to my students! -- is to be incapable of distinguishing.
Which is why that day came as such a revelation. We had, for years, lived away from New England: not since late boyhood, I suppose, had I really experienced the steady and sometimes agonizingly slow rhythm of early spring in the American Northeast. Visits, yes: but not the long, imperceptible dawn of warmth and growth. And yet when I saw that first red, saw those brambles looking just like the ones I used to play among, saw the tatter of last year's leaves beneath them and the stalks of young bushes coming up among them, I saw something so perfectly familiar that I stopped short in amazement. I could not on pain of banishment have named even one of the different plants spread out before us. But I knew them all, knew just how they would snag at a mitten or snap back into a face, knew how they would withstand uprooting and bind around larger trees and hide lost baseballs.