Spring begins to tug at my sleeve

Spring is not here. It's the end of winter, and I am tired of it. I'm tired of my heavy coat. The same coat that felt like an embrace in November feels like a stone hanging around my neck today. I'm tired of boots by the door and mittens drying by the woodstove. I want a day when I drop my rake in the garden, whistle to my dog, and head to the river. I want to listen to birdsong and watch the sparkle of sun on the water and see the green rolling up the hills. That day is a weary wait away.

And yet, if I pay attention, the signs of spring, the promise of the year's turning, are all around me. They begin to catch my notice. One by one. Elusive. Tentative. Turning my face toward spring.

It is the light that I notice first. One day I realize that I'm not watching for the lights of the school bus in a pitch-black rectangle in the kitchen wall. The light is gray, but I can see clear to the line of trees that the bus must pass before I get a glimpse of it. We're eating supper, and it's still light. The squares of sun don't slant clear across the pine floor, and the sunlight seems warmer, stronger, more golden. I can almost feel sap rising in me. Hibernation - cozy sitting by the fire, knitting, reading - is less appealing.

Seed racks appear in the hardware and grocery stores. I stop to browse on my way to buy lettuce, which looks tired from its long trip over icy roads. I'm hungry for real lettuce, picked in the cool morning, fragile and green. I always stop at the racks for a packet of something, sunflowers or radishes, lettuce or zinnias. I bring it home and put it in a basket on the kitchen windowsill. It cheers me with its promise and bright color through the last of the cold snaps and storms at the dragging end of winter.

Outside the kitchen window, in nests of straw spread on the snow, the calves begin to appear in twos and threes. All night long the lights burn in the calving shed. You can see headlights in the pastures as ranchers make their rounds, looking for new life in the cold and dark.

Small and hunched, the calves stand close to their mothers. They curl up in bunches in the straw or lie in a sunny little hollow in the field, watched over by a couple of mama cows. On a sunny still afternoon, they will bounce awkwardly on last year's dry grass, tails held out stiffly, starting to play. Mama grazes nearby, placid and unconcerned, in sunlight that seems new.

The tomato seedlings are up. Some days they look like a joke, or a mistake, sitting on the south windowsill in the glare of the sun off the snow. Other days they look like the edge of the rising tide, as insistent as the cheeping of the chicks in the box by the washer.

In deep winter, my attention is on survival - keep the wood box filled, break the ice from the water buckets, get the boots and mittens dry. Now these concerns get dumped in the mitten box by the door - not yet put away but no longer my central purpose. My attention is demanded by new life.

The lambs arrive, and a sack of lamb milk mix sits in the corner of the kitchen. The bottles and nipples are always on the counter. One day I go out to feed them, and they crowd around me on bare ground, wagging their eager tails, bumping the bottle with their wooly heads. The sun is warm on my cheek. I lift my face.

The next day we are huddled on gold straw by the heat lamp in their shed, listening to the wind, watching the light, powdery snow being driven through the cracks between the boards. I wrap my scarf around my face, shut the door tightly, and trudge back, head down, to the house. I water the tomato seedlings. They seem to have stopped growing.

A few days later, the wind is chilly but the ground is bare. There is mud! Mud, the glorious herald of spring! The frost is coming out of the ground. I think I see new birds, a robin here, a red-winged blackbird there. At first I am not sure. Were they really there?

THREE days later, I get another glimpse. They are coming back! Down along the river, the water is dark, and last year's dead, dry weeds rustle and rattle. But from the willows and the cattails comes the trill of the red-winged blackbird. Even as snowflakes drift lazily down, in the wet places along the creeks and on the little islands of the river, the willows and dogwoods glow, gold and cranberry, as if lit from within.

Then, one day, driving on the upper road, I see a bluebird skimming across the tan winter grass, bluer even than the deep blue arch of the sky. And, in the morning, I step out and hear the meadowlark singing and see the faint green spreading inexorably up the slopes. The year has turned, rushing toward the renewal of life, the promise and the purpose of our world.

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