Setting Out After Signs of Spring

Where I live in the north country, April is the cruelest month. Not because it ''stirs dull roots with spring rain,'' as T.S. Eliot put it, but because it doesn't. April is winter's purgatory, when sunlight strikes the earth but doesn't seem to penetrate. All the bright beauty of snow has melted away, leaving a brown wasteland.

Bludgeoned by monotony, I feel dull and hopeless. Rational thought fails, courage evaporates. Nothing will ever happen! I rant to myself. We'll be caught in this stage forever!

One day, in the midst of such brooding, I saw a bluebird. Such a cliche, but nevertheless so brilliant a wink of cobalt blue on the bare limbs of a maple. Could he be scouting for nesting sites? I wondered. Despite the brown grass and naked trees, does he have faith?

And it came to me: I could scout, too. Rather than drag through April with my heart ''barely beating, barely repeating,'' like Maxine Kumin's frog under the frozen mud, I could go out and find spring. Each day, on my walks, I could search for a piece of it.

Sure enough, the first morning after my resolution, a flock of robins gathered in the underbrush near the brook. They squawked and scattered into a leafless tree as I approached. ''You're early, fellas,'' I answered sourly. ''The worms are still frozen in the ground.''

The robins just stared, as if knowing what I'd yet to find. Then I noticed tiny green spears in the wet ditch beside the road. Straight and strong, they poked through a layer of sand and salt. I raced home to inspect the barrel where I'd planted tulip bulbs last fall. No hint of growth.

SEVERAL days later, I saw open water on the lake. The ice had receded, uncovering a sheet of choppy blue. Sunlight struck the rippling water, and it looked alive. The dull gray ice on one side and the living water on the other mirrored how I felt: half alive, waiting.

Walking in the dark that night, I heard the frogs. A low, resonant grumble. They sounded cold. Perhaps they were having trouble believing in spring, too.

An owl swooped by -- a flash of pale silent wings. I found its pellet beneath the maple tree next morning.

Much as I hated to admit it, things were progressing. On the way to the bus stop with my two sons, we saw hundreds of worms on the pavement, flushed out by the previous night's rain.

Seeing their bodies like a litter of twigs reminded me of my own childhood, how my sisters and I would fling worms onto the grass to ''save'' them. And in the dripping woods, we would heave aside rocks to find tiny orange-jeweled newts. The smell of wet humus rose in my nostrils, just as it did then. This is what I need, I thought -- to save a few worms, hunt a few newts. When I turned back to the house, I saw that the lawn was greening. Hurray!

But just as hope began to rise like sap, we had a day of sharp driving sleet, whipping the bare trees and gathering in miserable clumps on the grass.

Then, a stretch of warm weather! With some trepidation, I hauled out my bicycle to ride last year's route. What joy, to wheel along with the wind at my neck!

The roads were sandy and the fields bare, but the land stretched out before me. I noted each familiar spot: the marsh where the redwings nest; the stump where the old oak fell; the flooded beaver pond. All unchanged, yet all new.

At the horse farm, the chocolate-brown mare tugged at pasture grass. Afterward, my legs were stiff but my thoughts were flying.

A week later, I lost patience with the tulip barrel. Rooting around with muddy fingers, I uncovered one soft, rotting bulb, then another. Every single one of my red-and-yellow tulips had frozen! Yet the earth felt good under my fingers, the sun warm on my hair. I could hear the humming of bees.

Tomorrow, I vowed to search out a flat of bedding pansies and make that barrel bloom.

I stopped to pick up a basswood tassel and roll the rich gold pollen between my fingers. I noticed the trees had grown thicker in profile, bristling with an assortment of tiny blooms.

''Nature's first green is gold,'' Robert Frost reminds us. Still, it seemed hard to believe these filigree blooms would really burgeon into the heavy leafage of summer.

INCREDIBLY, in April's final week, I opened the blinds to dazzling snow. Trees bowed, heavily laden, toward the white earth. The juncos hopped about confusedly. Have we begun to move backward?, they seemed to say.

Striding along the wet, gray road and muttering to myself, I heard the mating call of a male cardinal. In the barest branch of the tallest tree he perched, his breast catching the sun. A tiny heart of red feathers, nothing more, yet I felt flooded with gratitude. What was it -- the color? The height? The song of pure longing?

Three days of dark pounding rain followed. Storms streaked across the days, rumbled through my dream-filled nights. Hail danced on the grass like mad white grasshoppers. Everything was shrouded, close, and secret.

Then the sun came out and the world opened up like a book, like a door. Stretching away as far as the eye could see was a faint haze of green, a soft-spoken promise, a thousand leaves beginning to unfurl. Can I have forgotten this, I thought -- the look, the smell, the far shining possibilities it unlocks?

For a moment, I felt the whisper of memories slipping by, and I peered ahead, sucking in the new air of the future. Then, before the wonder could fade, I shrugged off the last shackles of winter and stepped forward into spring.

The trees swayed and laughed, caught in their early beauty. And the April sun -- wise, powerful, and oblivious -- shone over all.

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