CONTEMPORARY Americans have a more difficult time than their forebears appreciating the delights of springtime. For modern technology can wish them away in mid-winter to the warmth of the Caribbean. Little wonder that the most intense feelings about spring were monopolized by early Americans who had little recourse except to endure the ravages of a harsh winter. March, for William Cullen Bryant, even with its ``loud and bleak'' winds, brought ``the hope of those calm skies And that soft time of sunny showers When the wide bloom, on earth that lies, Seems of a brighter world than ours.''
To average Americans there were many seasons and hence numerous springs: mid-March to mid-April, depending on the temperatures, was the time for maple sugaring; early March was a benchmark, according to almanacs, for farmers to mend fences and collect firewood for the next winter. For children, longer days and warmer temperatures meant kite-flying after school and, if the ground permitted, the playing of marbles.
If the eye was not refined enough to appreciate the slow unfolding of the season, the ear was certain to record its presence. ``I heard a robin in the distance,'' Thoreau wrote at Walden Pond, ``the first I had heard for many a thousands years, me-thinks, whose sound has the same meaning it was wont to have.'' For others the sounds of spring were those of insects and bullfrogs whose utterances could be so loud as to interrupt a face-to-face conversation.
And then there were the fragrances that announced the changing seasons. ``But what ambrosial odor is that which now salutes the senses?'' queried one 19th-century writer who, like many Americans, could not unravel the specific ingredients of the everpresent blend of springtime fragrances.
Some early Americans accepted spring without questions, poetry, or deep philosophy. Willliam Byrd II of Westover, Va., spent a memorable spring night on a journey in 1728:
``Our landlord had a tolerable good house and clean furniture, and yet we could not be tempted to lodge in it. We chose rather to lie in the open field, for fear of growing too tender. A clear sky, spangled with stars, was our canopy which, being the last thing we saw before we fell asleep, gave us magnificent dreams. The truth of it is, we took so much pleasure in that natural kind of lodging that I think at the foot of the account mankind are great losers by the luxury of feather beds and warm apartments.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University.