Thursday, April 1, 2010


I wrote this essay the first April after I retired. The weather hasn't been quite as lovely this year, and I'm focusing on so many other things besides the joy of being at home. But it's good to reflect on the beauty of this tumultuous but tender time of year.
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Other than weekends and the occasional sick-day, I have spent relatively few daylight hours at my house since we bought it twenty years ago. As my vacation allotment expanded over time, so did our grown children’s careers that kept them ensconced in their own regions—California, New Hampshire, Minnesota and the western-most peninsula in the contiguous U.S.—so I used my time away from work to keep family ties knotted tightly. Until now.

Now I am home every day. I am learning the creaks and groans of my house, the mail carrier’s schedule, and our neighborhood’s patterns. This is my first April ever to observe my house Monday through Friday. April sun streams through my dining room window at ten o’clock in the morning. Birds bat against the sliding-glass door as they swoop in to the feeder. When I’m outside, I hear a madrona tree branch squeaking as it rubs against the trunk of the maple in a woodsy shoving-match.

Little birds jump and flit about the salal on the edge of the woods like kids on a grade school playground. Throughout my backyard, the ground is cushioned and fragrant from the fir needles that drop as the new ones push forth. Until I lived here, I never knew that evergreen trees also lose their leaves. Some of the firs are over a hundred feet high and cast their April shadows on the house. When the wind blows, those shadows dance across my carpet—startling me into thinking there is a visitor standing on the front porch, poised to ring the bell.

Beyond the salal that delineates my backyard is the litter of a woods—fallen branches, rotting stumps, vines competing for light and host organisms. I used to dislike the messiness of it, envying Bavarians their Black Forest neatness. But when I observe birds scavenging for nesting materials among the stumps and rubble, and see the camouflage and food available to all the critters who make that place their home, I appreciate the life-sustaining quality of decayed and discarded matter. It’s an invitation to the dance.

Looking out of my dining room window, I am intrigued by a colony of purple thrushes as they dart from the leafy bushes to the feeder and back—males and females jumping about, taking turns eating and waiting in a way that would make Miss Manners nod in approval. Mixed in with the songbirds is a plentiful supply of crows showing off in a fancy display of acrobatics, as if boasting of their urban adaptation. Sometimes when I am outside I hear the faraway steady hum of traffic as a reminder of the city in whose confines I live, but mostly I think of my property as rural, bridging the woodsy world to the concrete one.

Birdsong seems to be coming from the still-bare locust tree, but I cannot find its origin, although from the sound of it, it is a member of the thrush family. A squirrel is clacking in another tree, and because of its twitching tail, I have spotted it. One of my favorite springtime sounds has returned after its winter hiatus—the humming of flies. As a child, I always loved the sound of fly-hum in the warm summer woods of our lake house. Why the sound of a fly out-of-doors can make me nostalgic for my childhood mystifies me, because the sound inside transforms me to a woman on the rampage. The squirrel’s clacking, too, makes me think of those idyllic summers of childhood at the lake house—apparently I’m a pushover sentimentalist.

Although I have plenty of indoor activities with which to busy myself, the yard and the woods suck me outside like one of those giant magnets when the weather is nice. The jumping-bean twitch of April seems strangely heartbreaking in its fragile, fleeting loveliness, like the fat black beetle’s dash to a safe haven when I stoop to pull a hunk of vetch. The moles have returned—I had hoped they would take up quarters this year in a neighbor’s yard—but for some reason this morning their roadways through my only flowerbed make me smile. We share this place, all the critters and I—even the prehistoric mountain beavers, with their insatiable appetite for the plants I purchase from the nursery—and they are welcome. Overhead, a jet plane’s contrail seems to reinforce my acceptance with its bold underline.

A little boy with a backpack trods up the hilly driveway my house, home from school. I hear his siblings greet him—two younger boys who have not yet begun school. The scent of something— someone once told me it’s strawberry moss—is deliciously sweet. The sour odor of a weed called Stinky Bob makes my nose wrinkle up involuntarily. Just as I get ready to go into the house, needing to make lunch and finish a project, a neighbor walks by with his dog who barks ferociously at me.

“It’s OK, Cody,” says his owner, “she lives here.”

Yes, I do—and it’s good for Cody and me both to remember that. Other Aprils I have not been home. Somewhere a neighbor down the way is tapping a hammer—I wonder what he is making—and now I hear the whir of an electric saw. In distance, is the rattle of a truck in too high a gear, lugging up the hill, and far, far away on the lake that is several miles away, I catch the straining sound of a float plane struggling to lift off.

As I make my sandwich, I crack open the back door to let the sounds and smells of April come inside like drop-in neighbors. The air is still chilly, but so fresh and fragrant I can’t resist. Now I can also hear the drone of a power washer, a sound that most likely will go on all day. From my kitchen counter I can see the candytuft that is giving a surprise party in the rockery—a party gotten too wild with its bursts of bright white flowers everywhere that have even pushed moss from the rocks, as it aggressively demands more space. And just then, as if he smelled my tuna salad, the roaming cat from several doors away claws on the screen door, dropping by for his daily petting.

Yesterday I found three shattered robin eggs in the driveway, and later in the afternoon the shells were gone. Crows? Jays? Cats? The robin still sings in the tree. Is it a song of heartbreak or hope? Last night I heard a well-known author speak. “Man is a terrible, warlike animal,” he said, “an unforgivable polluter, aggressive, mean-spirited, and insatiable in his greed.”

We are a nation at war, yet I am at peace this day. I am joyful in my world and for the moment, I have blocked out ugliness and terror—at home in April.

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