Casaubon's Book

Peep!

Note: It hasn’t happened yet here, although we heard them down the hill in the valley yesterday. But we seem to be having an early spring, even though we’ve still got more than a foot of snow to melt off. I wrote this last year, and though the precise circumstances are different, the need for that sound is just the same. I know I owe y’all new content, but this one seemed appropo. Has spring sprung for you?

Spring doesn’t come easily in upstate New York – she wrestles with Old Man Winter for a long, long time before he gives up. The first sign is the daffodils, up a small amount in February, giving false hope, but also inspiration – proof positive, as they fight through layers of snow and ice that spring may come in the guise of a fresh girl, but she is one tough young lady. But I have to remind myself – green stems do not mean spring.

Then comes the inevitable thaw, and the smell of wet earth, that scent that screams spring, but isn’t quite because you’ll have more frozen nights and wintry days yet. The grass, uncovered, greens up faintly, but the dominant colors are dull grey and brown, and we hold our breath for the change that can’t come fast enough. The crocuses bloom, and that is a small change, a step forward, but the real thing hasn’t come.

The birds come back, new ones each day – first the robins, of course, still in winter, but a tiny flit of hope for an end. Then the grackles come in waves (it is hard to be excited about grackles, but in winter, one can be happy about anything that prophecies its end). Then a bright dash of red winged blackbird, and then a sudden burst of new birds each day. But delightful though they are, the birds in themselves cannot carry spring.

Here, spring isn’t a color, and it isn’t a smell or a taste, and it doesn’t even have wings (although it might have feathers, a la Emily Dickinson). Oh, spring has flavor – wild strawberries and overwintered spinach, dandelion greens and wild asparagus. Spring has smells – warm wet earth and daffodils, hyacinths and grass, and colors – the clear pure yellow of daffodils, the purple of crocuses, that sweet gold-green that blushes trees and the reddish tint of buds that preceeds it, the vibrant green of new grass. But it is none of those things.

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It is a sound, a single sound, the end of wintery silence when the Peepers wake up and begin to call to one another for love. Peepers, for those of you who don’t live where they do, are tiny frogs, who make a sound not entirely unlike the sounds of katydids or crickets when heard from a distance, but different, wonderfully strange and sweet up close. They are far too loud for their tiny size – standing next to a pond full of them, you would think you might go mad – except that after a long muffled winter of snow, you have to listen just a little longer.

One year, just once, I heard them begin to sing. We went to the wetlands on the edge of our property, walking along the road, and we stood in absolute silence and waited, and heard just one peeper take up the song for the first time – or maybe it just seemed that way. By that night, the whole watery area was in chorus, but just at the beginning, it was just one lonely peeper, calling out for love, hoping that somewhere there was someone else for him. It was strangely magical, and every year I try to duplicate it, to be there when they awaken, and spring truly begins.

This year we went, day after day, long before it was really likely that we’d hear them, when there was still ice along the edges of the water and patches of snow in the woods, but we went. And even Asher knew that when we got to the wetlands, we should stand, and be quiet and wait. And we would, hearing new bird songs each day, until something disturbed us. Yesterday, we got back late from the Greenmarket and errand running, and everyone was tired, so we did not walk out. And at chore time, as I was cooking dinner, Eric came back in and told me that the peepers were calling. We had already put the boys to bed, but ran upstairs, and opened the windows so that they could hear it too.

I missed the moment spring came to my place, but I expect that, no matter how hard I try and duplicate a near-miracle. Mostly, you don’t see deep change happen, even though you know that it is occurring. You go out in the garden after an absence of a few days, and wonder how those tiny seedlings became those deep-rooted plants, or you look at your daughter and wonder how it is that she’s lost the look of a toddler and become a child, with nobby knees and a galloping gait. Mostly the biggest transitions pass us by, and it is enough to say that you didn’t miss anything important in its entirety. They say on hot nights in July you can hear the corn growing, and just once, I did hear the peepers awaken, but mostly the greatest transitions pass you by and that is our lot in life.

In a purely practical sense, were you looking at my mud-colored, snow patched landscape, you might wonder what changed, why I say that spring came. We still have more mud than green, things are still changing only incrementally, the daffodils still aren’t yet open, although the purple crocuses brighten each morning. Things still squelch, and I know better than to plant out today – the peas I put in today will, as usual, sit waiting for dryer and more settled weather and end up being harvested at precisely the same time as the peas I plant out in two weeks – so why bother, except, of course, that I am chomping at the bit to plant anything outside. Seedlings are great, but they are not sufficient to sustain me.

All I can say is that I know this is it because it is – not very useful, I suppose, but I know that now no snowfall, no late frost, no burst of winter will make a difference in the consistent forward motion of energetic spring. So I wait to plant, the waiting is made easier by the singing of tiny frogs, frogs I almost never see, whose presence I would not suspect were it not for those short weeks in which their music dwarfs the birds and my noisy family, and shakes the foundations of winter. He’s done for.

Spring has won, again. The rest will come slowly, achingly, and then it will burst upon us, and some people, looking at the flowers, the grass, the budding trees, will nod and say “spring is here.” And we will smile at them and agree that it certainly is, and hold quietly the fact that we heard spring happen, and were there, if not for the golden moment, just after life returned anew.

Happy Spring,

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Bob Sonnenberg
    March 12, 2010

    Beautiful

  2. #2 WIll
    March 12, 2010

    Apropos

  3. #3 Greenpa
    March 12, 2010

    Lovely, Sharon. I’ve shared this experience with you many times, and look for it every year. We’re not ready here yet- our pond is still solid winter ice, though the clear run-off from the deep snow pack is lifting it.

    It is one of the joys of my life that Spring Peepers now live, and winter, among the tree crops I have planted (along with several other amphibians.)

    Often here our first spring sound is not the peeper, but usually a single Killdeer, floating gradually north. Still waiting; but it’s certainly going to be soon.

  4. #4 Greenpa
    March 12, 2010

    Rats. I intended to include this, and got distracted by the Killdeer.

    You, and your boys, would get a HUGE kick out of another activity with the Peepers.

    During daylight hours, the Peepers are notoriously unapproachable- when they see you near, they hush quickly, and vanish underwater.

    About 3 hours after sundown, though, it’s a different story. Then they’re so wrapped up in their business they’re actually hard to hush.

    Here’s what I recommend- get everybody’s spring rubber boots on; and warm jackets; and get everybody some kind of RED flashlight.

    Then; everybody walk reasonably quietly up to the verge, and just into the water. The Peepers may not even shut up while you walk in, and will restart quickly if they do.

    You’ll get to see the throats ballooning; often see mating, even active egg laying, and even predation sometimes; once we watched a big waterscorpion grab and eat a Peeper.

    The biggest danger is that you’ll turn the kids into biologists.

    Best done in the middle of the peeping season; more frogs, more blind lust.

  5. #5 Gray Gaffer
    March 12, 2010

    Daffodils – check; birdies tweeting – check; peepers – check double check. These are in the pond behind my home on Bainbridge Island, WA:

    http://www.freesound.org/samplesViewSingle.php?id=87786

  6. #6 Greenpa
    March 12, 2010

    Ah. Son Beelar reports hearing one killdeer this evening.

    Followed by a small flight of redwing blackbirds- usually a week behind the killdeer; but it’s melting fast.

  7. #7 jen
    March 13, 2010

    Hmm the Peepers around have been 1. Smashed by the van 2. almost drowned in the pool when I attempted a rescue. But here in SC, Winter is one day and Spring is the next.