Easter — March 23, 2008. It is a cold 17 degrees on this earliest Easter Sunday most of us will ever celebrate. And only the oldest folks now alive have seen it this early before, those who were around in 1913. The next time Easter will fall on this date, according to The Christian Century magazine, is in 2228.
But the earliest possible date for Easter is March 22. The last time that occurred was in 1818 and the next time will be in 2285. What will life on earth be like in the 23rd century? ill there still be birds singing, children laughing, flowers blooming?
On this momentous day, I awaken to the silence of a white Easter, courtesy of a Good Friday six-inch snowfall. Almost immediately, I recall the words from a song I used to sing in the children’s choir at our church many years ago.
One early Easter morning, I wakened with the birds.
And all around lay silence, too deep for idle words.
This morning the peace outside is deep and it is even quieter than most Sundays. But a crust on the snow makes it noisy when I walk, and I must stop often to listen to the singing and calling birds. They, it seems, are not dismayed by the wintry cold and snow.
White-throated sparrows hymn my passage across First Field. American crows rise from the field, black against white.
The shadows of the dried grasses and wildflowers on the white earth remind me of the Albrecht Dürer painting “The Great Piece of Turf” on the cover of our friend, Todd Davis’s wonderful book of poetry Some Heaven. The painting of dandelions about to open, plantain, and a scattering of grasses is as spare, in its way, as the snow shadows, or as a poem that distills, in a few words, the beauty of the common plants we call “weeds.”
Davis writes in his poem “Once Again” that
Not long after the snows
are gone dandelions spring
up across the fields, green
only for a few weeks. In time
their heads turn white like old
women, hair blown by the wind
without any apparent purpose
which reminds me of my own wild, white hair and advancing age.
Pondering this, as I sit on a fallen tree above the old garden of our deceased neighbor Margaret, I bask in the sunlight and hear the mourning doves’ singing as a sorrowful counterpoint to the strident cries of blue jays. Then, the ever ebullient song sparrows and “churring” red-bellied woodpeckers join the avian chorus, followed by the raucous crows.
I move on to Bird Count Trail, and again the predominant singer is the mourning dove cooing his welcome to spring. Next, after many silent minutes, a northern cardinal sings “cheer, cheer, cheer,” but another clicks its disapproval of my presence.
A tufted titmouse pauses on a tree limb to peer at me as I labor up the steep Haul Road, pausing frequently to rest, and a pileated woodpecker takes its noisy self off and over the treetops. Tufted titmice “peter-peter” in the distance, while train after train whistles each crossing in the valley.
I cross a ruffed grouse track and see its wing imprint in the snow where it has risen into the sky. I frequently encounter gray squirrel tracks and holes where they have dug through the snow and into the earth in search of a buried nut.
I reach the top of the mountain and head south along Sapsucker Ridge Trail. Once I stop to sit against the largest tree on our property — a black oak that is a lesson in overcoming adversity and old age. Despite broken boughs and dead branches, its core is solid and it continues stretching upward and outward each year. Below sits our aging house, built in 1871, and our guesthouse, built in 1865. They too are showing their ages, just as Bruce and I are, but we keep fixing up their worst blemishes inside and out instead of trading them in for new models. The same is true of our faulty selves.
This woods ring with titmice song and a single mourning dove holds forth. Once a titmouse “peters” high and another answers nearly an octave lower. Finally, the higher-pitched singer prevails just as sopranos overwhelm altos in the “Hallelujah” chorus. Then I hear the basso profundo croaks of a common raven as it flies overhead.
Black-capped chickadees quietly “dee-dee,” instead of singing their usual “fee-a-bee.” Perhaps, the snow has put them back into winter mode. In the distance, the trilling songs of dark-eyed juncos pierce the winter silence. They, in any case, still think it’s spring.
In this section of the forest, I frequently encounter fresh whitetail deer tracks, and once I catch the white flag of a deer fleeing over the mountaintop and down into the tangle of mountain laurel.
The resident pair of ravens sails past. One calls and dives out of sight. The other circles silently above me several times before coasting onward in answer to its mate’s insistent calls. I wonder if they have already set up housekeeping on one of our talus slopes.
I gaze across at the snow-covered Allegheny Front, imagining what it will look like if a proposed industrial wind farm is built on it. Even our mountains will be made low by our technology towering over them so that we can continue our power-hungry, wasteful habits, and some of the last unfragmented land in our state will be sacrificed to feed our insatiable appetites. The lungs of bats will blow up from the rapid pressure drop that occurs as air flows over the turbine blades, according to a study by Erin Baerwald of the University of Calgary in the journal of Current Biology. And who knows how many migrating birds will be ground up in the blades.
The vernal ponds are frozen solid again — black glass shining in a white landscape. Cottontail rabbit tracks wind through the common milkweed patch bent and broken by the snows of winter. Porcupine tracks meander along the trail, into the Norway spruce grove, and up a Norway spruce tree where it has left barkless patches. The spruces themselves are still bowed low with snow.
First Field is silent until I near home. And then I hear the trill of juncos, the petering of titmice, the liquid notes of American tree sparrows, all issuing from our dense forsythia hedge. Water drips from the eaves of our house. Hyacinth leaves poke up through the band of open soil on the south side of the house. Water gushes beside the driveway, heading for the beginnings of our stream below the guesthouse.
At the bird feeders, the American goldfinch males are shedding their dull winter feathers for the gold of spring and summer. Fox sparrows have been here for weeks, and today one sings its ethereal song. A woodchuck visits the base of the back steps at noon in search of birdseed, and a meadow vole that burrowed under the birdseeds below the back steps is also interested in eating. March — the starvation month for animals — forces them to seek handouts.
Several days ago, before the snow, the American woodcocks displayed in First Field and provided us with several evenings of live entertainment. And on the first day of spring, two woodcocks took off from the wet area on First Field Trail. The first flew into the underbrush inside the deer exclosure, its wings whistling. The other one scurried silently through the fence. Slowly it paraded across the ground, pumping its ruddy breast as it walked. I had a long look at its out-sized bill, its gray back pitted with black, and its reddish-brown breast gleaming in the sunlight. Its black right eye kept watching me as I watched it until it too disappeared in the underbrush.
The first eastern phoebe arrived in an earlier snow squall that quickly morphed into rain on the eighteenth of March, but he has remained silent, waiting for sunshine to sing his monotonous, but welcome “phee-be.” A female American kestrel, her tail twitching, keeps watch on the electric wire near the barn. She’s been back for nearly a week.
Right on schedule, March winds have shaken the mountain, sweeping our porch chairs over and breaking one of our son Dave’s stack chairs by blowing it off his elevated porch. Returning turkey vultures have rocked above the ridgetop, riding the wind in ways we can only dream of.
Despite what seems to be a brief return to winter, when the thermometer never rises above 38 degrees this early Easter day, the hot spring sun cuts through the snow, opening the south-facing slope on Sapsucker Ridge and melting each footprint down to the brown earth.
In the evening, as I settle down to read in bed, the window wide open as it is throughout the year, eastern screech-owls trill nearby. Already, they are preparing for their nesting season ahead.
Later, after I switch off the light, I hear heavy tramping through the snow beneath my window. It sounds like a human or maybe a bear. I kneel at the window, watching and listening, until the heavy tramping changes into running. Deer bound through the snow, passing from the springhouse wetland where they have been grazing, across the flat area, and on up snow-covered Laurel Ridge.
Slowly, slowly the natural world and its denizens are rising from the long, deathlike sleep of winter.
All photos taken on Brush Mountain by Dave Bonta. Dürer painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.