In my trees, sounds of May

I hadn't noticed how quiet it had become until the stillness was broken by a single singing cardinal. On the coldest day of February, I was intent on shoveling out from under 14 inches of fresh powder. Nothing stirred across the polar landscape - not the ubiquitous squirrels, whose footprints usually crisscross new-fallen snow, not the circling hawks that often animate the winter sky, not even the neighborhood dogs.

Weeks had passed since I'd given thought to the plangent call of mourning doves, the chirp of robins, or the everpresent cawing of crows. The deep February cold had sent them all South, inaugurating a silence that had stolen upon us as imperceptibly as high tide. It wasn't until that frozen tide began to recede, until the first break in the icy dam of silence caused by a faint red chirp, that I realized how profound the freeze had been and how starved my ears were for the lilt and staccato of birdsong.

Shovel in hand, I paused to watch the cardinal dart across the blue-white garden and light on a snow-covered spruce. Perched amid powder, it looked like a glowing coal encased in ice. I wondered: On what could it possibly feed? Surely it had made a terrible miscalculation by being here now. But the cardinal's piercing, metallic call reverberated not with snowbound sorrow, but with cheerful intimations of spring. It charged the brittle air with new vitality, singing as though warmed by April light. Then it vanished. I returned to shoveling, conscious of a silence more profound for having been broken.

During the next several hours, as I labored to clear a path, the cardinal kept me company, roosting on the garage roof, fence post, and powerline, each time uttering its steely, "what-cheer, cheer, cheer," before streaking away. That single call transformed the day from what initially felt like a sustained, deep freeze to one of imminent thaw. By early afternoon the strengthening sun had begun to melt snow on the roof. Perhaps that lone cardinal wasn't misguided after all.

A week later, with snow still a foot thick on the lawn, I noticed a riot of robins perching on the faintly budding branches of the maple tree outside my window. The temperature hadn't risen above freezing in days and more snow was forecast, yet when I opened the window it sounded like early May. It wasn't just the robins singing. More cardinals had joined the choir, along with a red-headed woodpecker, several black-capped chickadees, and a pair of mourning doves. All afternoon they fattened themselves on the desiccated berries of a shadbush, returning to the maple to digest. Judging from the size of the robins, there was plenty to eat. I'd never seen them looking so robust.

Something was afoot, some impending transformation, but only the birds and an emerging rabbit seemed aware of it. The rest of us were still husbanding pails of salt and sand, bringing in more firewood, readying the snow shovels for yet another storm.

The next morning I awoke half an hour before dawn. With the approach of day came the first stirrings of the season - a skittering in the gutter, the call of a nesting house wren. The rising sun brought more chirping, the returning birds either indifferent to the cold or so driven by natural impulse that temperature was of less significance than angle of light. It was hard to think of spring with snow predicted, but the birds seemed to hold to a different notion of seasonal change. To them, spring was as absolute as the calendar, as reliable as the celestial position of Earth. Neither snowfall nor icy winds would stay their return, and they brought with them the music of anticipation that's so much a part of change.

What is spring, after all, but a confusion of weathers shifting daily or hourly - sunny and warm one moment, rainy and raw the next. The 15th of April could bring a blizzard or butterflies. But even amid snow, spring takes hold of the heart, implanted by birdsong. Proust believed taste to be the most evocative sense, a single bite of madeleine cascading him back into childhood. Others find that smell re-animates the past. But it is sound that situates us seasonally. The song of a single cricket at sunset transports us to early autumn, the hum of bees places us in summer, and the chirping of birds at dawn heralds spring.

Despite the iron gray light on that snowy morning, I felt a sudden lightening of my spirit at the sound of the wren. The birds were right, the weather was wrong. No, the weather was right - spring is all weathers - my spirit was wrong. No season is what we imagine it to be in the abstract; each is a great mélange of moods, of changing light and heat, tranquility and storm. Only the seasons of the mind are static; those of the heart are full of blustery weather or calm, reflective skies.

The wren and robins sang all morning, but by afternoon the gale arrived. It snowed all night and, intermittently, for two more days. Foraging squirrels vanished, but not the birds. They continued to chirp, defying this final dour face of winter with unyielding optimism. When the sun finally broke through, sheets of snow slipped from the roof with a thunderous crash and the grass began to reappear. Squirrels resumed their nest-building, and every bush and tree seemed to have spawned a dozen bright new birds.

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