Undefinable, unforgettable

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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.

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.

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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.

It took me back, that moment, to a many-acre field across from the house where I grew up. The electric company, they said, owned it; and indeed it had several huge pylons carrying high-tension wires from a power plant nearby. Otherwise it was just a field: marshy in places, with here and there a clutch of elms and three leftover apple trees, and covered with the anonymous grasses of summer. It was important, it seemed, to nobody but us -- though to us it was indescribably delectable. I remember spending days hacking trails through the waist-high grass with my parents' garden tools, carving the hilly sweep into a maze of stubbled tracks like a vast game of fox and geese. I remember trying not to follow the lay of the land, thinking there was something powerful and imperious about highways which plunged on in straight lines, proclaiming their dominion over a crooked terrain. I did detour around swamps, however. And I also curved around the edges of a certain kind of deep-brown, tall, graceful grass that grew in occasional waving patches about the field.

We never knew what it was named. We called it wheat-grass. As I think of it now, it may have been the leftovers of a crop planted many years before. But I never thought of that in those days. I didn't really care. I only noticed that it was different, and somehow lovely, and something I found I wanted to leave alone.

And in that moment, looking at the red with the puppy bounding about, I felt very much as I used to in that field looking at the wheat-grass. And it occurred to me, all at once and quite naturally, that so much of one's sense of home has to do with vegetation. Not, as I have said, with the namingm of plants, or even with a recognition of the differences of one plant from another. No, the sense of home, in some subtle way, comes from a view of a landscape in which everything -- the trees, the stones, the moss, the undergrowth -- composes a picture with no part out of place and nothing foreign intrudes. It may be -- as it was for me that day -- a hill one has never seen, in a town one has only just come to. Had there been something foreign there -- a lone palm, say, or a bit of sagebrush -- it would not have been less beautiful. Nor, given my vegetary ignorance, would I have necessarily seen just what made it different. It would simply have lacked that ineffable wholeness which defines familiarity.

No, there were no maidens dancing. They would have been charming, engaging, wonderful. But they would have been out of place. In the primavera of New England, in the first red of a new awareness, they would have been intruders. Given the choice, I suppose I'd take the brambles.

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