Blithe Spirit

Spring came in on the March wind. The dawn chorus cranked into gear. Water streamed off the mountain and, in a few days, the snow and ice were gone. We were delighted to see bare ground again, but our granddaughter Eva was disappointed. Spring had long ago arrived at her Mississippi home. She had come here–in mid-March–to see the snow we had been telling her about.

She made do, though, with hikes over the thawing fields and woodland trails. She was especially anxious to reach the mythical (to her) Far Field. For years she had begged me over and over to tell her the story about her Dad and his hike to the Far Field.

“It was a beautiful March day, like today,” I told her for the umpteenth time as we walked up First Field. “Your Dad was only four years old. When I went outside to call him, he didn’t answer. He was always singing and talking and when I didn’t hear anything, I was worried. I searched everywhere–in the barn, the shed, the guesthouse, the spring house. I rushed down to our little pond. I walked all the trails we had walked together, calling his name, and heard not a sound. I phoned our neighbor Margaret. Nothing. Where could he be? Then, after a couple hours, when I was thinking of calling Grandpa at work or the police, I heard his voice. He came walking past the garage, his four puppies trotting beside him. ‘Where were you?’ I cried. ‘I went to the Far Field with my puppies,’ he answered. “And,” I concluded as always, “even though he had only been there once before with me, he had found his way to the Far Field and back–almost two miles.”

To Eva the story gave her both a sense of pride (her Dad had been one amazing kid) and a sense of shame (she was almost eight and hadn’t yet managed to hike that far with me). So on a clear, crisp morning we walked to the old familiar places–her favorite autumn olive tree in the middle of First Field where we had played house and the spruce grove where we had had little picnics beneath an active crows’ nest. But our ultimate goal was the Far Field.

Along the way we examined innumerable vole runways and their domed, grassy nests in First Field. We stopped to pick up and admire two wooly bear caterpillars–one moving slowly over the field grasses, the other still rolled up in a ball–that her sharp eyes had spotted. Then we stood still and looked up at a flock of tundra swans flying low over the field, their white wings gleaming in the sunlight.

“I’ve never seen swans before,” Eva said in an awed voice.

Finally, we sat on Coyote Bench, “almost to the Far Field,” I told her and promised her a couple surprises. Our hunter friend Tim Tyler had built two V-shaped “hides” on the ground and, as I suspected, she was thrilled by both. The first is in the woods beside the Far Field, the second on the hill above the field. Sitting on the ground against the tree that forms the back of each hide, the stacked branches on either side are breast-high on me but Eva, when she scrunched up, was almost invisible to the outside world. As far as she was concerned, they were perfect places to play and tell stories. But it was almost lunch time so we hurried home, full of the news that at last she had made it to the Far Field.

March nights were almost as exciting as March days. One evening a raccoon appeared below the back steps to eat fallen birdseed, its bandit face and busy hand-like front paws a revelation to her. Buttonbuck also visited the feeder area frequently.

On another evening a woodcock performed, his wings whistling as he fell to earth over and over in the dim, dusky light and “peented” on the ground. All three of us–Grandpa, Uncle Dave, and I–watched and listened with her. Although it was an old story to us, it was a brand new one to her, and the usually noisy, ebullient, little girl watched in hushed wonder.

After the woodcock show was replaced by the star show, Grandpa pointed out the constellations to her as great horned owls hooted in the distance.

The Ides of March was a glorious day, warming up almost to 50 degrees. In the morning Eva and I walked along Greenbrier Trail where she collected a deer jawbone, ruffed grouse feathers, and wild grape tendrils for her backyard museum that her father had helped her build in Mississippi. “Just like the one he and Uncle Dave and Uncle Steve had when they were kids,” she said happily.

We continued on to Bench Blind hollow, where we sat in the blind to rest before continuing on through a Lilliputian forest of ailanthus to Witch Hazel Trail where we threaded our way carefully down Sapsucker Ridge to Ten Springs Trail and the Ten Springs Extension. While I picked my way carefully over, she slid under the nest of five, hurricane-felled tulip trees and triumphantly found her own way down the steep slope to our road. From there it was another mile back up to our house yet she walked pluckily onward. Altogether she had walked a rugged three miles, talking all the way.

In the afternoon, we packed a large thermos of tea, small yogurts, mixed nuts, and fig bars, all of which I put in a pack on Eva’s back. We also brought along a collecting bag and a foam camping pad. I spread out on the pad in First Field above the frog pond and rested in the sun while Eva entertained herself by rolling down the hill as she yelled, “It’s great being a child!”

She was covered with bits of dried grass that clung to her brown hair and sweater. “The more dirty you get, the more fun you have,” she concluded. Then she ran full-tilt down the hill, her ponytail bouncing. I call her my blithe spirit. Every time she visits, she’s a greater joy, filled with questions and more self-sufficient, but still a wide-eyed child filled with wonder for the world, both human and natural.

The wind blew, crows cawed, and the sun shone warmly on the field. I soaked in the warmth while Eva continued her rolling play. Once she returned carrying the jawbone from a dead deer that she had kicked apart near the frog pond. It was more fodder for her museum.

After an hour of me resting and her running, we headed downstream in our boots. It was too cold and early for salamanders and frogs, so she collected sphagnum moss instead, squeezing out the water in fascination with still another (to her) unfamiliar life form. And we continued our tree identification lesson which I had started the previous day adding beech, hemlock and white pine to striped maple, black cherry, and black birch. Black birch she called the “root beer” tree and always begged for twigs to chew on like her Dad did.

Slowly we wended our way a half mile down the stream, crossing and re-crossing on rocks, until we reached a large, flat boulder that sticks out over the stream and forms a perfect tea table. “When your Dad was little,” I told her, “this was our favorite picnic rock. Once we even had a picnic there in the middle of the winter.” That made it a special place for Eva too, and we enjoyed our tea and snacks before trekking back home.

The following day–Eva’s eighth birthday–it snowed. All my plans for the day had to be scrapped, but Eva was ecstatic. “I prayed and prayed and prayed that it would snow on my birthday and God answered my prayers,” she exclaimed happily. Grandpa and Uncle Dave had planned a scavenger hunt for her birthday presents and she kept busy running inside and out as she followed their sometimes obscure clues. The climax gift was a telescope. Later in the morning she went out to sled with Uncle Dave in the falling snow.

I baked a carrot cake for her at her request and we spent much of the afternoon watching the bird feeders. A fox sparrow flew in and scratched open areas of seed that other birds used too–at least 50 juncos, 20 tree sparrows, five song sparrows, several white-throated sparrows, five cardinals, and the other regulars. They scarfed down food all day as the snow continued falling. In the midst of the storm, an eastern phoebe landed on the guesthouse porch and flicked his tail. He was right on time but in the middle of a five-inch snowstorm? What could have possessed him?

The rest of Eva’s visit was snow-centered. One day Uncle Dave allowed her to use a snow saucer a friend had lent us to slide down First Field hill just as he and his brothers had done when they were kids. I stood hidden off in the woods, my heart in my throat, as she spun downhill at a terrific speed, yelling all the way.

“My bottom left the saucer three times,” she bragged later to me.

Another five inches fell a couple days later. March as usual, I sighed, wondering where spring had gone. But to Eva, winter’s return was her best birthday gift.

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